Her eyes welled up with tears. Bent over, she covered her face as her tears began to fall and let out her hurt in one big cry. At first, he defended himself. “But her picture is not very good. I didn’t want it,” he said with a cold, logical tone. Another hero piped up with passion in her voice, “But you’re not supposed to say anyone’s artwork is dumb on VALENTINES DAY! It’s supposed to be a day filled with LOVE!”
It was obvious this young hero was not aware of the effect his words had on his art-loving, gift-giving friend. Maybe this experience would turn into an empathy-building moment for him, I thought. I bent down and looked at him in the eyes. “When you said her picture was dumb, how did she feel?” I asked.
“Sad,” he mumbled, with a distant quality in his voice.
“How do you know?” I continued. “What does it look like she feels right now?” I hoped he would use some of the tools of identifying emotions we had been exploring during our morning circles.
“She’s crying,” he observed. “Oh… she’s sad.” he said with more awareness as it finally “clicked”.
“Yes,” I agreed. I went one step further. “How do you feel, knowing that what you said caused her to feel so sad?”
“Sad,” he said quickly, with tender authenticity. “Oh… I have a big-mistake-feeling… I’m sorry.” Quickly he went over to his hurting friend. With love in his voice and eyes, he gently said her name and made his apology. She felt his love and chose to open herself to healing.
I felt proud of him. He showed great effort and openness to his friend’s feelings. Yet this isn’t how it’s always been. When he first came to us, he came with arms crossed, heart locked up, and a determined grimace on his face that showed his mistrust – at just 5 years old.
With this “against” mentality, he had entered our studio. From the beginning, I knew our quest would be to shower him with love, sifting through the resistance to find the little seedlings of tender curiosity and creativity growing inside – and pour on all of the fertilizer I could muster. Our older heroes joined me in this venture, creating fun ways to play with him during our gym times and outdoor times, and even inviting him to do works with them in the studio. At first, he could be found wandering around the studio during work time. Over time, he chose to read a book in the calming corner instead – and we praised him for his focus. After more time had passed, he began to be open to his first work he was truly curious about – his sound book.
This was not just any sound book – no. Knowing his fascination with superheroes and ninjas, I quickly adjusted it – calling it his very own “Ninja Sound Book.” We spent a little time together each day, practicing the sounds of the letters and thinking of characters that had particular sounds in their names. This entire process began to unlock in him the curiosity, creativity and courage that is inside. He has begun to identify himself as a part of our community, and is beginning to embrace our studio contract – our promised code of conduct to each other. Phrases such as “Your contract” and “I don’t care” are fading. In fact, the day before our Studio Exhibition this past week, he said something that surprised us all.
“Last exhibition, I was late because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be here. But this exhibition, I’m going to be on time. I’m not going to be late – I’m going to do my part,” he said with great boldness as we had gathered around to reflect after our studio maintenance jobs that morning. Sure enough, the next day’s exhibition came, and there he was, excited for the day and on time.
To go from a posture that is “against” the world to discover what one is “for” – this is the transformation that unleashes the world-changer inside. This is the power of empathy, acceptance, and love within a community to awaken our authentic, creative selves, and unlock our potential.