Last September, my little boy was hospitalized twice and placed in intensive care with severe bilateral pneumonia for several weeks. My husband and I took turns sitting by his bedside in forty-eight hour shifts. When we weren’t at the hospital trying to keep our very active little boy now-permanently-hooked-to-an-IV-stand calm, we were at home trying to reassure our 3 children that their little brother was okay and would be home soon.
A few months later, while coaching my middle school cheerleading team, I received an urgent phone call from my mom telling me that my father had discovered a large tumor in his kidney that needed to be removed immediately. I instantly dropped to my knees and began sobbing in front of my entire cheerleading squad.
These things were frightening and they shook me to my core.
I started hugging my children and my parents longer, saying ‘I love you’ much more often, and even though I hadn’t been to church in years–I started praying a lot.
It was a difficult time that tested my strength as a mother, a daughter, and a wife.
Thankfully, after some time had passed, my son and father began to heal–thanks in no small part to a handful of extremely talented doctors. The heavy cloud that hung over everyday life started to lift and things began to feel lighter. I felt reassured that things were starting to get better and looked forward to the spring.
And then May 4th happened…
I walked into work on a beautiful spring day and was fired from the job that I loved more than anything in the world.
-The job that I poured my heart and soul into.
-The job that filled me with a sense of purpose.
-The job that didn’t feel like a job to me.
I couldn’t hold it together any longer. You see, my entire identity was wrapped up in my job. I took an enormous amount of pride in my work and all that I had accomplished as a teacher. And before that day, I truly thought that my supervisors felt the same way.
As a matter of fact, just a few days prior to this, I confidently told the other moms at a class party that I felt ‘incredibly lucky’ to have found a job that ‘challenges me’ in a school that ‘feels like home.’ I felt like such a fool.
And I was completely heartbroken.
Over the next few months, I slowly started sinking into a deep depression. I felt completely consumed with worry and anxiety, asking myself why and what if constantly.
Why is this happening?
Why did I not see the signs?
What if I had said or done _____ instead of _____?
And the more I entertained these why and what if thoughts, the more I tried to rationalize irrational things, the more depressed I became.
I felt paralyzed and trapped in self-loathing. I was really hurting and it was beginning to affect my entire family. The confident mom with the easy smile and laugh was gone and I had no idea how to get her back. My kids really needed their mom back and I knew that–but I couldn’t stop the negative tape that kept playing and replaying in my head.
This went on for months.
After a while, I started to sense those around me becoming frustrated that I couldn’t just let it go. It dawned on me that my grace period was running out.
And so I did the worst thing possible; I stopped sharing my feelings with people.
From this point forward, when someone asked me how I was doing, I smiled and told them I was great. I knew that’s what they wanted to hear and frankly, I started to feel embarrassed that months had passed and I was still struggling. Because I wanted to let it go more than anyone else but I was still reeling and just couldn’t get out of my own head.
I started to feel really alone. I started to feel hopeless.
And then one day-after months and months of wallowing-my mind kept wandering back to the same few memories:
-The time a kind man volunteered his time to visit my son (and many other sick children) in the hospital dressed as Batman.
-The time my husband left a small note of encouragement on the dashboard of my car on a day that he knew would be a tough one.
–The time parents from the school community and my own students came out to a board meeting to speak on my behalf.
-The time a stranger who had read about my story in the local paper looked me up and sent me a letter expressing empathy. She was once in a similar situation and wanted me to know that I wasn’t alone.
-The time my second grade students surprised me on the last day of school with signs expressing their love and gratitude for all I’d taught them.
And then for the next few days, every time I started down a self-destructive line of thinking, my mind kept wandering back to these same few happy memories.
And finally it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was asking myself the wrong questions.
My subconscious–knowing the futile nature of searching for the why– was trying to remind me of the what.
What really matters.
What is important.
What to do.
I suddenly realized that these kind gestures–the what —were always there and waiting to comfort me–even in my darkest moments.
They were waiting to give me hope in a time when I felt hopeless.
It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to stop asking myself why and start asking myself what.
What can I do to make things better for myself?
What can I do to make things better for those that I love?
What can I do to make things better for my community?
This small shift in my line of thinking—from why to what–brought me back into reality. Instead of asking myself why things were happening or what if I had done things differently, I started asking myself what I could do right now to make things better for myself and for those around me.
I started making a conscious effort to do something intentionally kind for at least one person each and every day.
-I wrote a thank you letter to a college professor for being such an inspiration to me.
-I let my daughter stay up way past her bedtime so we could do crafts together and just talk.
-I thanked the neighbor for always putting a bowl of food outside for our cat.
-I walked around the neighborhood with my kids and placed little notes and flowers from our garden on people’s doorsteps.
-I secretly paid for a young family’s meal at a local restaurant when picking up takeout.
And slowly but surely, I stopped feeling consumed by anxiety and even started feeling happy again. I started looking towards the future–about what I could do for someone else tomorrow– instead of being consumed by my past.
Eventually, I even began to feel strong enough to put myself back out there professionally–a thought I couldn’t even entertain a few weeks prior. I decided to pitch an article to Edutopia about a teaching strategy I used with my former second grade class. Edutopia accepted my pitch and published my article.
It was exactly the boost that I so desperately needed.
Then, much to my surprise, I started receiving emails and tweets from educators around the globe expressing their gratitude. These kind strangers were taking time out of their busy days to thank me for my article. They were telling me to keep writing and encouraging me to continue inspiring other educators.
Their expressions of gratitude completely overwhelmed me.
If only they had known that just a month prior, I couldn’t even inspire myself to get dressed in the morning.
All of this has made me a true believer in the absolute power of intentional kindness.
Kindness pulled me out of a dark time in my life.
Kindness told me to start making things happen.
And kindness kept on encouraging me after I took that first step.
These acts of kindness had such a profound effect upon me that I couldn’t help but wonder:
-How many other people desperately need a smile or a friendly note of encouragement right now just like I did a few months ago?
-What would happen if more of us made an effort to bestow just one simple act of kindness on another person each and every day?
-What kind of an effect would this have on our community as a whole?
There is this idea that acts of kindness should not be advertised as the act of performing the kindness is the reward–which is true. The act is the reward.
On the other hand, imagine how powerful it would be for us as a community if we shared more of these intentionally kind moments with one another.
After all, aren’t these exactly the types of moments that we need to see?
We are inundated with a twenty-four hour news cycle that often highlights the worst in humanity. Maybe we would all feel a little bit better about ourselves–and perhaps even life in general– if we knew that we were doing all that we could to make life better for just one other person each and every day. And then imagine how much better life would be if there were other people in our community who were actively trying to make life better for us.
I know firsthand how just one simple act of kindness can have a tremendous impact on someone else’s life–an impact that we may never know. So I reached out to a former colleague of mine–Karen LeVasseur, a former school counselor who now owns and operate Calm4KidsNJ in Bradley Beach. She implemented an inspirational program in our former elementary school called 10,000 Acts of Kindness–a challenge to track 10,000 acts of kindness in the school setting over the course of a year.
I shared my story with her and we decided to team up to launch the Flood the Shore With Kindness: A Movement to Spread Kindness Up and Down the Jersey Shore.
Flood the Jersey Shore with Kindness is a social media movement designed to spread kindness up and down the Jersey Shore.
The beauty of this movement lies in it’s simplicity. All you need to do is perform an act of kindness and share it on our Flood the Jersey Shore with Kindness Facebook Page. You can also share it on Instagram using the hashtag #floodtheshorewithkindness. That’s it. We are visual beings, so include a picture if you can. Not on social media? You can also email your act of kindness to email@example.com and we will post it for you. We have lots of resources to help you get started and will keep adding even more as the movement grows.
Special note: To celebrate this launch, for every new pledge, a donation will be made to Ocean of Love, a non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to helping Ocean County children with cancer and their families. Their purpose is to assist the children through their illness. They provide financial and emotional support so that they can experience the “normal” joys of childhood, knowing their lives are significant and meaningful to each and every one of us. Read more about the movement and how to get involved here.
It’s time to start asking ourselves what can do today to make life just a little bit better for someone else. It’s time to start sharing more kindness.
UPDATE 11/6/2017: For weeks I wrestled with the idea of putting my story out there for everyone to see. I mean, part of what happened to me last year was public knowledge. There was a very public hearing about my dismissal. It was extensively covered in the local paper. That was my choice and it’s one that I still firmly stand behind. It needed to happen in public.
Still, it wasn’t something I talked about anymore. It was just too hard.
And I worried that putting it out there all over again—even within the context of something really positive–would be reopening a wound that already took so long to heal. I knew I didn’t have it in me to experience that pain again. I knew I couldn’t go back to that place.
But I believed in the power of the message strongly and eventually took comfort in the fact that the things we are most afraid of doing are usually the things that cause the most growth. Or so I hoped.
And once again I am completely overwhelmed in the best way possible.
Since this article was published, I have received so much support from so many and I am profoundly grateful for it. Because it’s made me realize that while the wound is still there–probably always will be–it’s now covered in scar tissue. There’s no reopening it. There’s no going back to that place. It’s done now. And that is more freeing than I will ever be able to express in words.
And if you want to know part of just why I loved my job so very much, here are two moving examples written and posted on social media. One of the best things that has happened out of all of the chaos of these past 6 months has been forging unexpected friendships like these and so many others. I’ve taken out names and other identifying information simply out of respect for privacy.
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”-Booker T. Washington