Some thoughts on injecting mercy into our daily lives
By Amy Lynn Tompkins
Mercy is not a term I hear very often, so when I sat down to write this essay the first images in my mind were of biblical mercy, judicial mercy — the big moments, the ones that define humanity and nations — but those are, in some ways, too large to understand and have very little application in everyday life.
Recently, I heard on the radio a TSA employee confiscated a five-year-old’s Buzz Lightyear toy and threw it in the garbage as the child and his father passed through airport security because the toy was a “gun.” Working with children and growing up in the wake of events like Columbine and 9/11, I’ve watched moments such as that one time and again, when adults enforce rules strictly and without consideration of circumstance.
I entered eighth grade in fall 2001. That year, one of my classmates was expelled because he brought a noisemaker to school in a film canister. Technically an explosive device, the district called it a bomb. Under the nationally mandated Zero Tolerance in Schools policy, there was no room for consideration of intent — no room for mercy.
This is why, 15 years later, as a substitute teacher I am slow to punish my students. I have different children every day, and with only a few exceptions, I have no knowledge of the outside circumstances in their lives. So, when a student chooses to do something that is not allowed, I make sure that student knows what they’ve done is not allowed, but I take it no farther unless the child is openly defiant or the behavior is dangerous.
It’s a common practice among some of my fellow substitute teachers to evict students from their classrooms for even the smallest infraction. They assume their students are already aware of what is expected from them, or that the student is intentionally causing disruption. But when a student is removed from a class, it can result in days of in- or out-of-school suspension, causing that students to miss important class time.
I choose to believe that my students are not trying to make my day harder, and that it’s more important they are present for regularly scheduled class time than to exhibit perfect behavior during a substitute-run study hall. I believe my compassion can have a positive impact on their lives, so when I am confronted with the choice between punishment and compassion, I choose compassion.
While I was working as a substitute secretary in the nurse’s office, a student came into the office for something small, but the nurse noticed her shoes were falling apart. The soles were almost completely detached and they were obviously too large.
The tendency would have been to ignore it and only address the concern she expressed, but the nurse asked if she had another pair of sneakers. When the student said she did not, the nurse turned to me and asked if I would mind “taking her shopping.” This was the term we used when referring to the school’s closet of donated clothes and shoes, intended for students who forget gym clothes, spill food, or have other mishaps throughout their school day.
As we walked to the closet, she offered me a meager excuse in defense of her current shoes, obviously insecure about their condition and concerned that I may have been judging her, but when we reached the closet, there happened to be a single pair of shoes in her size: a brand new pair of pink and white Nikes. When she put them on her feet, her shame melted into a smile.
During my tenure in that same position, a 14-year-old student who is intellectually much younger than his physical age spent one morning screaming at the aide who works with him one-on-one, being uncooperative and disruptive.
Rather than punishing his behavior without question, the aide discovered that he had lost a tooth and the tooth fairy had not left any money under his pillow. She acquired a little plastic container shaped like a tooth from one of the elementary schools and put a dollar inside. Then she placed the plastic tooth in an envelope and made sure it was waiting for him after lunch.
He was told the envelope had been mysteriously delivered. Inside was a note that said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so happy I finally found you.” The trajectory of his day changed completely.
Simple acts of mercy have the power to change the lives of those around us. During Thanksgiving dinner, I told my family about the girl who I helped find new shoes, and my grandfather, a tough blue-collar man who had a brutal childhood during the Great Depression, started to cry.
He told me a story I’d never heard before. Seventy years ago, a store owner had given him a pair of brand new shoes that had been left behind by a customer who no longer wanted them.
His voice broke and tears wet his cheeks. His childhood stories are rarely happy, but he always laughs as he tells them. The bad stories have faded into ridiculous hilarity, but the random kindness of a stranger has endured.