On a Saturday morning in March, 49 years ago, my father walked into the house after being outside, where he and I had just finished washing his truck. As he came through the door, he grabbed his chest and fell to the ground, stood up and fell again.
I was 11 years old. I can still see the panic on my mother’s face as she screamed to me to run next door and get our neighbors and have them call for help.
In an instant, my world turned upside down. I was scared, confused and not sure if I’d see my dad again. I had so many questions, but I couldn’t utter a word. My father had suffered what would be his first of two heart attacks. The second would take his life years later.
In the following days and weeks, I did my best to go through my normal routine, get my homework done and take care of my mom who suffered from, and eventually succumbed to, scleroderma.
It’s a time that stands out as one of the most difficult periods in my life, and yet one of the most treasured, because in dealing with my parents’ illnesses, I discovered the depth of concern, caring and compassion that was just beneath the surface among all of my friends, family and teachers.
When I went back to school, they knew I was struggling and they gave me a little more room, a little more time and a little more patience. But what if they didn’t know? Would I have been treated differently? What about all the people we say good morning to and pass in the hallway? What about all the children who sit at their desks with the weight of the world on their shoulders, doing their best to focus?
Certainly it is not possible to know each and every story.
Which kid in class didn’t have breakfast?
Which student didn’t have dinner last night?
Who fought with their foster parents?
Who is too tired to fight anymore?
At the core of every human being is the need to be loved, to be appreciated, to be seen and to be heard. I know that is what that 11-year-old boy needed and it was the compassion my teachers showed me that meant so much. But certainly not everyone at my school all those years ago knew the mile I had to climb each day, but that’s just it.
We don’t always know. We simply don’t know the complexity of the challenges even some of our closest friends and colleagues are facing.
That is why, as we settle into a new school year, we must always “proceed with compassion.”
With every day, every moment and every interaction, we have a choice. I believe that if we resist the urge to jump to conclusions and, if we give people the benefit of the doubt, we would be incredibly surprised by the difference it makes in their life and the change it makes in ours.
Because when we proceed with compassion and assume that it’s possible that our co-worker’s, our friend’s, our student’s day is perhaps more of a struggle than our own, we engage with them differently, more kindly and more generously. We allow them the room they need to be the best they can be and we allow ourselves the opportunity to be the best person we can be.
We have that opportunity every day, with every person we meet and every student we teach.
As the Fresno County superintendent of schools, it is my goal for every child to receive the tools they need to succeed, academically, socially and emotionally. I want every student to have the opportunity to find their bliss, understand their role in making this community a better place, and discover their purpose.
Every day in our classrooms, we have the opportunity to teach these skills, model the traits we want to see in our students and cultivate the programs that will bring about their success in every capacity. These lessons are reinforced with each positive outreach and meaningful interaction, from adult to child.
You see, even if we don’t fully understand what our children or our colleagues may be facing, a smile can make a difference and a kind word can change the course of a life.
When empathy replaces misunderstanding, compassion takes the lead.
Jim Yovino is superintendent of Fresno County schools.