Kindness and the Common Good
Being new to a community can be a daunting experience. For the newcomer, any community seems to have its unwritten rules and expectations that are not clearly explained during an orientation period or in a handbook. When I travel to other nations and cultures, I know that there are cultural attributes that are unfamiliar to me. My tactic is always to watch, try to learn, and be grateful for any redirection that is politely directed my way. In any experience in life, those of us who are new are always grateful for the guidance of those who, by their experience, can confidently navigate the cultural norms of their surroundings.
The opening of the new school year saw the arrival of 106 new students to Trinity-Pawling School. The health of any community is always revealed by how it responds to the arrival of new members.
As a new freshman (or any new student, for that matter), being assigned to be the waiter for the first week of family style meals creates a daunting challenge. The new boy doesn’t know the routine. He doesn’t know the physics involved in stacking dishes and food on a tray. He hasn’t yet exercised the spatial skills necessary to pack up empty dishes and platters of food back onto a tray and navigate his way back to the kitchen with the burden of 20 pounds of breakable china. He doesn’t know the order of how to dispose of dirty dishes once he has safely navigated himself to the kitchen area where the image of dropping the tray in front of 300 peers seems to have subsided a bit. Every new boy assigned to be the waiter during the first week of school wishes he had been tasked with this responsibility at a later time.
Yet, what each new boy could not anticipate before assuming his responsibilities as a waiter during that first week of school was the outpouring of support from old boys, the veterans. Surveying Scully Dining Hall that week, I saw older boys helping new boys learn the skill of waiting on the table. I also saw many new seniors helping new boys negotiate the challenges of being a waiter even though their newly established status as a senior exempted them from this duty. Of course, each old boy has been, at one point, a new boy and had to learn how to cope with the challenges of this responsibility. It was an immediate, visible reminder that this is a community that reaches out and welcomes the newcomers and teaches them how to navigate certain idiosyncratic cultural norms such as being a table waiter.
During these opening weeks of school, this type of transference of cultural competency occurred in places other than the dining hall as well. Older students helped younger students deal with homesickness and the laundry system, and what to do with flex blocks in their schedules. As I observed the transfer of cultural competence from the veterans to the newcomers, I was struck by what was absent in this dynamic. What was motivating this transfer of cultural competence was not the reward received by the giver of knowledge to those seeking it. Egos were not being stroked and the status of older boys or returning boys was not being bolstered by such interactions. Rather, the transfer of competence emanated from a place of kindness, from a desire to promote the common good of this community. This was quality, effective leadership.
There is an observable difference between leadership skills that develop through the accumulation of status versus those skills that develop through being regarded as a nice, likeable person. Adolescents crave status and they regard it as an invaluable commodity that will guide them through the challenges of teenage and adult life. Research, however, confirms that leadership skills that develop based on status (roles, positions of authority, popularity, etc.) do not serve individuals well as they become adults.
Status, unless it is grounded on something more meaningful, can only go so far in one’s life. Rather, leadership that is grounded on a foundation of likeability, or being a good and kind person, is the type of leadership that matures over time and leads to later adult success. Research also indicates that such acts of kindness also promote greater health, happiness, and a more positive outlook on life.
One of the distinctive attributes of the Trinity-Pawling community is that the vast majority of the students value likeability over status. When the student body speaks of “The Brotherhood,” they are talking about those elements that bond the students to one another. It is the type of bond that allows older boys to reach out to a new freshman to ensure that he knows how to stack dishes on his tray during the first week of school. And, it is this type of kindness that research illustrates will lead to a healthier and happier life. Watching a freshman learn how to stack a tray full of dishes during the first week of school is to be reminded that the depth of the common good found in any community is built on kindness rather than status. Let it be so.
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