Learning About Empathy: Child Teaches Teacher What it Really Means
By Cindy Reitzi,
Madison substitute teacher
Before we learn embarrassment and adult defense mechanisms to protect
ourselves, we are in the state of childhood. Watching recent school tragedies
across the country on the evening news, we get the impression that children
and young people are, instead, in a state of siege.
When this impression sticks, we have to think urgently about empathy
and how we acquire what used to seem like a natural trait. Why focus on
empathy? Because, to consciously plan and kill someone specifically, it
is impossible to be empathetic toward that person or persons.
Empathy is to feel with, to imagine the feelings of another whom you
know or dont know. Empathy is philosophically emotional in its stance;
it is to acknowledge our ethical landscape as fellow creatures. Empathy
is more than sympathy and different than sensitivity. People can be sensitive
and feel a great deal, but be oblivious to others feelings or how
their actions affect them. The students, who consciously shot their classmates
and fully understood their actions, were sensitive and felt
a great deal. But ultimately, they lacked empathy for their victims and
for the grieving survivors left alive to mourn them.
Empathy is the most profound emotional vantage point we can take as a
people. Empathy is an especially powerful trait when people feel
with others whose experience of the world they dont directly
understand or share. It can change history when free whites
oppose slavery or institutional racism or when heterosexuals oppose discrimination
against gays and lesbians even though neither group has personally experienced
these forms of oppression.
Without empathy, we cannot really call ourselves civilized.
On a simpler, everyday level, young children who show a sophisticated
sense of empathy compared to some of their elders have inspired me. Louis*
is one such child. In a short time, Ive come to like Louis. He has
a spirit of mischief, curiosity, and sense of community in his kindergarten
universe. His intense brown eyes reflect all the academic stimulation
as well as the emotional currents around him.
On the day before a field trip to a pumpkin patch, the teacher, Mr. P,
discusses how to dress appropriately for the weather. Jamal, Louis
best friend, sits on Mr. Ps lap while children sit on the carpet
Should we wear mittens? asks Mr. P.
Yes, answer the children in unison.
I dont have any! Jamal announces un-self-consciously
to the class.
With every subsequent question about hats, boots, and scarves, Jamal
replies, I dont have any! With every declaration, Louis
becomes more distressed: his brow furrows and his brown eyes widen in
genuine pain for his friend. I half expect Louis to bring Jamal an entire
winter outfit the next day. Even though Mr. P reassures Jamal that the
school will supply him with the winter items, Louis still seems distressed
by the deeper implications: Why doesnt Jamal have warm clothes like
he does? Someone he loves is suffering because he doesnt have enough.
Its an injustice Louis cannot understand, but by recess he knows
how to respond.
On the playground, I see Jamal with one mitten, and forgetting he doesnt
have any, I ask, Jamal, wheres your other mitten?
I dont have any! I look puzzled.
Its Louis mitten. Louis, close by, walks up and
takes Jamals naked hand. In a vision of emotional symmetry, each
holds up one mittened hand: Louis to the left and Jamal to the right.
He shared, explains Jamal. Moved by his gesture, Im
a little speechless. I smile at Louis; Louis smiles back.
Well, I joke, you guys look like Michael Jackson!
They laugh and bounce off to play.
As a kindergartner, Louis has taught me a very concrete lesson in understanding.
Louis doesnt know what its like to lack winter clothing, but
he understands what it feels like to be out in the cold. * the names of
children have been changed
Posted May 26, 2000