I believe that love and compassion are the strongest forces in any positive change. The most inspiring people I have encountered operate from a a place of beautiful, powerful, genuine love. Effective social justice activists are driven by a feeling of love for all people. Effective environmental activists emanate a love for both people and non-people. Effective teachers not only demonstrate unfaltering love for their students, but also provide a context for their students to love one another.
My co-teacher and I have striven to do just that. At the beginning of the year, I taught my children how to say “I love you” in sign language. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out Spiderman’s hand next time he web slings; he too operates from a place of love– or something.) I then unintentionally developed a ritual using this sign. It started as an act of desperation to maintain control over the group when a child has an emotional meltdown during circle time. I had tried talking over the crying child, but that just increased everyone’s stress level. I had tried being really engaging, but, let’s face it, nothing is more fascinating to young children than another child’s meltdown. Eventually, I started saying things like, “Friends, _______ is really sad right now. Let’s send him/her love.” I would hold up my I-love-you-fingers towards the crying child, and my students would follow suit. Eventually, the crying child would calm down, and we could all re-focus.
This ritual really took off in our class. Whenever a friend was physically or emotionally hurting, we would hold up our I-love-you-fingers. I will never forget the time when one of my girls was telling me about a scrape she had on her finger, and I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her feel better, and she whispered to me, “Can you tell the class to send me love?”
My children started to understand the potency of love. Back in September, one of our children was home sick. His peer came up to me, sat on my lap, and said, “I miss my friend.” I suggested that he send his friend love. He responded, “But he’s so far away. Will it work?” When I told him that it would, he said, “That’s cool!” and held up his I-love-you-fingers. Often, during our meal times, my children will ask me which direction their house is, and hold up their I-love-you-fingers in that direction, saying, “I love you Mom,” or “I love you Dad.” We have even sent love to people who lost their homes in Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes.
My children have extended this ritual into the non-human world as well. Just last week, one of my children sent love to a dead tree he saw on our hike. In April and May, we did an extended exploration on insects. My children were not only fascinated with bugs, but they felt so compassionate towards them. Some of them came upon a dead bumblebee, and decided that it needed a funeral. They placed it in a small hole in the garden, and sent it love as they covered it up.
This ritual has been a pivotal component in building our classroom community. I see it as a powerful tool in developing emotional literacy and empathy in young children. They are learning that others may have emotions that are different from their own. My children are learning that even when they are not with their mom, dad, or absent peers, these people would still appreciate their love. They learn not only to recognize what it looks like when others are feeling hurt, sick, overwhelmed, sad, mad, etc., but they are able to recognize the expression of love, by both giving it and receiving it.
I also see this ritual as a means for empowering my children. I am teaching them that when they see someone whose heart is really hurting, they have the power to relieve some of that pain. Everyone, no matter the age, has the capacity to give someone else his or her love.
I have inadvertently adopted this ritual in my own personal life. I noticed this back in December when I was talking on the phone to a friend of mine who was going through something really tough, and noticing that as I was listening to her, my I-love-you fingers were subconsciously extending. When driving past a wreck on the highway, I make sure to hold up my I-love-you fingers to those involved. Sometimes I quiet my mind and form my hands into this mudra and send love to those in my life who really need it. This meditation is the form of prayer that I have found to have most personal meaning in my life.
I have to smile when I think about what the community could be like if my little ones keep up this ritual. I believe that when you have love for someone, you have a bond with them and you support them. Imagine what it would feel like if, on your toughest day, everyone you encountered made a point to tell you, “I love you.” Every emotion would be embraced and validated. Simple acts of love are so energizing and empowering that our community would feel more alive.
“Love is like infinity. You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’ Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.” -Mr. Rogers