Acts of Kindness and Legacy

Thursday, 22 June 2023

In 1966, race relations in the US were not good and deeply held racist views regarding blacks were common. In 1966, an eleven-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family to a white neighbourhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition.

All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . .”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!”
Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home.

That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realise, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale University and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. In the Jewish tradition he notes, such civility - chesed - does indeed require kindness toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, even when it is hard.

To this day, he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility (the one act of being kind to others) can change a life forever.”

Kestenbaum’s act of civility was a one-off act but it was a part of her everyday life woven into the fabric of her character. Her one act was no doubt one of many acts developed and moulded by her Jewish learning and upbringing. But her one act made an enormous difference to Stephen Carter. 

Being on the cusp of leaving, I have been so heartened to receive many emails over the past few weeks and quite often, the sender is recalling and relaying an act of kindness when I was a teacher or as a principal. In all cases I have forgotten entirely about the act perhaps more because I never gave thought to it as it was done. However, it was wonderful that the one act made a huge difference to the child (at the time) or the adult.

I do believe that one simple act of kindness or consideration can have enormous beneficial consequences. One act of kindness or consideration can be the moment one cements one’s reputation. Conversely, one act of aggression (all too common now with social media expansion and misuse) can hollow out an individual leaving them resentful or hurt.

Perhaps legacies should be measured by eulogy virtues over resume virtues. That is, a legacy of who one was over what one achieved.  

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