The National Mall

In the months of May and June, the area surrounding the National Mall of Washington, D.C. is aswarm with the easily discernible energy of middle-schoolers.  Schools across the nation, celebrating the end of a school year, send their students, by the busload, to bring classroom history and civics lessons to life.  The outcome of this experience- besides the blisters, spells of dehydration and exhaustion- is by design, a more informed and appreciative citizen.  

One can read about the Vietnam War or watch one of the popular mainstream films that attempt to encapsulate the era in which it was fought, but you can't replicate the experience of seeing a grieving friend at the Wall- connecting with someone they knew decades ago.  One can't imagine the silent tension of remembrance that you feel while walking the expanse of the entire Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  

There are similar scenes and moments of historical absorption at the other war memorials nearby, including the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial.  At these memorials, you can speak with, and gain a new appreciation for, the veterans of these wars.  They regularly come back to these memorials, proudly wearing hats, clothing or medals that indicate their specific service, to honor their friends and fellow service men and women- many of which didn't come home.

In 2011, the National Park Service established a new monument- the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  The experience at this site provides a different experience for the visitor.  It stands as a powerful commemoration of the wisdom of the great Civil Rights leader.  On August 28th, 1963, Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial (see photo above) and delivered one of the most famous speeches in American History; the "I Have A Dream" speech.  In the speech, Dr. King craftily used the words of the Declaration of Independence to demand new civil rights legislation.  Fittingly and intentionally, the memorial to Dr. King is placed in a way to create a straight line from Abraham Lincoln to Dr. King to Thomas Jefferson (one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence).  

The National Mall experience, a rite of passage for so many American middle-schoolers, and for so many more reasons and places than I described above, is an invigorating experience that provides physical and emotional reminders of our democratic values.  

My favorite spot?  Yes, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  At the feet of Lincoln.  Where King stood. From this vantage point, we see the towering monument named after our first President and in the distance the U.S. Capitol, where our current political leaders work.  This one place, with its rich history, encourages us to reflect on what has been and dream of what can be.

Photo Credit: Me
On a previous visit to Washington D.C., I woke up early, grabbed a Capital Bike  just down the block from the hotel and pedaled furiously to the Mall, hoping to have the Lincoln Memorial to myself.  This shot is from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, from the spot that Dr. King stood while delivering his "I Have A Dream" speech on August 28th, 1963. 


Becoming Compassionate

Jimmy wasn't considered to be a popular student in high school.  He had few friends and was from the less affluent side of town.  Jimmy and I were in the same grade.  I don't recall if he was bullied, but I also can't remember people being nice to him either.  Despite his pleasant affect, keen sense of humor and service to his community (he volunteered with the fire department) he was mostly "unnoticed".  I vividly recall walking to chemistry class one afternoon and down the hallway I could see Jimmy, clearly in distress on one knee outside of the boys' bathroom, getting sick.  And what for what seemed like an eternity, students just walked on by, either not noticing him or not caring enough to stop and see if he needed help.  Person after person.  Nobody noticed. Nobody helped.  They just walked right by.

Nate did stop.  He dropped his books, ran over to Jimmy, put his arm around him and asked for help from a gathering . Then another student stopped to help, and another, and another.  Within a minute, some students got Jimmy on his feet and into the bathroom.  A few students went to get a teacher.  Other students blocked off the area due to the mess on the floor.   It only took one person.  One person to notice someone was in need and to have the empathy to know that they needed help and the compassion to act on it. One person's act of kindness inspired many others to do the same.

It has been a long time since I graduated high school.  Despite the passage of time, I often think about that experience.  I can picture student after student walking by Jimmy, and then Nate rushing to his side causing a domino effect of compassion.  Why did Nate stop?  Why didn't one of those people who walked right by him stop?  The experience also reminds of the power that one person has to create change and inspire others to act with compassion.  Many of the people who passed him by were "good" people, yet they didn't stop to help.  What was happening at that moment that prevented them from doing so?  It is understandable that people, especially children, can become unsure how to respond in a situation like this.  It doesn't make them mean or unable to be compassionate,  just unsure.  Unsure what they can do to help,  if the person wants the attention of potential helpers, or how that person will respond by them offering help.

If you have never listened to NPR's TED Radio Hour, I encourage you to give it a shot.  Every Friday, a new episode is posted.  Previous episodes have covered a wide variety of topics, including: environmental issues, food, brain science, athletics, overcoming adversity.  This past week's episode, "Just A Little Nicer", explored the topic of compassion: can it be taught, the neuroscience that explains it, and are humans increasingly less able to demonstrate it.   Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who helped ignite an intelligence revolution with his book Emotional Intelligence, was featured in the show.  The latest research on social neuroscience, he reports, can explain why how in some moments we can be compassionate and while in other moments we are too self-absorbed to help others.   He shares a story of a man that he came across a "unnoticed" man in a subway stairwell that was clearly in need of help, and what happened after he stopped to provide assistance.  How he told the story took me right back to that high school hallway, remembering the story of an "unnoticed" student.

According to Goleman, the good news is that we can all become more compassionate.  We can teach ourselves, and our children, that through practicing kindness (ex: students writing positive messages to peers and adults in their lives) and mindfulness exercises (ex: breathing exercises, meditation) that take us out of our state's of self-absorption.  However, there is a major concern, that I think is shared by most of us who didn't have a cell phone until we were working adults.  How do we "transfer" to our children the skillsets needed to engage empathically with others when their primary form of communication takes place on a masked, sometimes anonymous, digital platform (texting, instagram, etc..) rather than face-to-face?  How this will impact the future of personal engagement, relationships and compassion won't be fully understood for years, if not generations.  Goleman ominously states, that with our increasing dependence on digital communication we are perhaps "starving the social brain" and engaging in an "unprecedented experiment with an entire generation." We are witnessing, he argues, our diminished cognitive ability to relate with others.

This may be our greatest challenge as educators in the 21st century: how to teach our children to be compassionate citizens in an era of virtual communication.

Daniel Goleman's interview, including brief excerpts from his popular TED talk, is linked below.