I spent my first 11 years in Mansfield Center, Conn., a sleepy town in the northeastern part of the state. Right before the seventh grade, my family moved to Los Altos and I enrolled in Egan Junior High School.
Junior high was a culture shock. I always felt 10 steps behind. The curriculum was much more difficult than I was used to – I had always been in advanced classes, but I would spend hours doing my homework each night trying to keep up. And it wasn’t just the academics. I remember coming home on the second day of school telling my mom, “I think we bought the wrong clothes.” Everything was different.
Some people were welcoming, though junior high school isn’t usually the most inclusive place. One girl in particular was downright mean. She pulled all the typical junior-high girl tricks – told her friends not to be friends with me, had them move tables if I sat nearby during lunch and made sure I wasn’t invited to her friends’ birthday parties. I distinctly remember a girl I thought I had become friends with tell me, “I wanted to invite you to my birthday party this weekend, but so-and-so said if you were invited she wouldn’t come.” How do you respond to that?
Despite the drama, I made it through junior high relatively unscathed, attended a private high school and then left for college.
Fifteen years later, I was rolling out my mat in a yoga class in San Francisco and heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw her smiling at me – that girl who had been so mean. After class, we made small talk about where we were living and working. I was friendly but left the conversation wondering: Does she remember all the things she did?
A week later, we ran into each other again at the same yoga class. We talked for a bit. I was friendly but wondered what I was doing there.
In the middle of our conversation, she looked me square in the eye and said: “I am really sorry for how I treated you in junior high. I was awful, and you didn’t deserve any of it.”
I felt tears forming in the corner of my eyes as the memories came flooding back – about being new in school, about feeling left behind, about trying to figure out the maze that was Silicon Valley as a seventh-grader who came from a small town in Connecticut. And then I realized something even greater: She had carried that regret with her all these years, and I had not.
Sure, she probably didn’t think about me every day or worry about how her words and actions had affected me. But the way she looked at me that day, and the way she authentically delivered her apology, made me realize that her behavior had left her with regret. In reality, her behavior had affected her far more than it had affected me.
With the new school year approaching, we often focus on how to have a good year academically – how to be organized, finish homework, study for tests and get good grades. We talk less about how to be a person of character – to err on the side of kindness, as author George Saunders spoke of in his commencement speech at Syracuse University last spring. Look it up, and have a conversation about it with your children.
So, this year, instead of simply asking your children how they will have a better school year in terms of school, sports and activities, ask them how they can become a better person. How can they be a person who is inclusive, has good character and treats others with kindness? To whom will they introduce themselves? How will they actively be part of their school community? What can they do when they see someone sitting alone? Which classmates can they make an effort to get to know?
We all have choices. Learning to err on the side of kindness is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. It is the first step in showing them how to live a life without regret. And that very may well be the most powerful childhood lesson of all.
Ana Homayoun is founder of the Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting and author of “The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life” (Perigee Trade, 2012). For more information, visit greenivyed.com.