Not long ago, I received a facebook friend request from a former classmate followed by this message: "Hi Becky, it's Son from Mrs. Hamilton's fourth grade. Wonder if you remember me?"
His name didn't ring any bells, so though I was embarrassed, I admitted that I didn't remember him. I asked him for more details, and what he shared in his reply stunned me.
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He came to America in January of my fourth grade year. He was one of the "boat people" who came from Vietnam, and he lived in a foster home on the north side of town. He was pulled out of class regularly for ESL classes. My best friend, Jenny, and I became his friends. We ate lunch and played together at recess. We helped him with whatever he needed until the end of fourth grade. After that he was tested and moved up to seventh grade, and we never saw each other again. He spoke about how much he missed Jenny and me when he went to middle school, and how he always had such good memories of our time together. In fact, he appreciated our friendship so much that when his first daughter was born, he named her Rebecca.
When I read that he named his daughter after me I covered my mouth and I gasped. Not because I was so impressed with myself and the way I had befriended an orphaned immigrant -- I honestly can't remember the second half of fourth grade.
No, I gasped because I was blown away by the power of kindness. Most of us have traumatic memories of someone being mean or bullying us, memories that stay with us a lifetime, but kindness can be just as potent. I don't remember eating lunch and playing at recess, but Son never forgot. It wasn't a big deal to me, but it meant the world to him.
I had never imagined what it would be like to move to another country, a young child without a mom or dad, and start a new life at a new school with a new language and new people. Son lived it. Kindness and friendship had a profound impact on him, and 30 years later he just wanted to let me know.
Before you think me a saint, let me share another story. Fast forward about 2½ decades -- I am now a grown woman, although at times I still feel like the shy, insecure girl I used to be. I am introverted, so large gatherings are not really my thing, but I am at a party with several acquaintances when a new family walks in. We politely introduce ourselves, but no one in our group truly welcomes them. They are different, not like us. Everyone stays in their small circles, none of them opening even a crack to include this new family. When they leave shortly after they arrived, I overhear someone say, "They just don't seem to fit in."
I regret that we didn't include them, that we allowed ourselves to be cliquish, and I've asked myself how I could expect or hope that my kids would be kind and inclusive, welcoming those who are new or different, if I don't do it myself?
Son's email made me feel warm and fuzzy for a few moments, then provoked me to some serious thinking.
At times, I have allowed insecurities, judgments, and uncomfortable feelings to keep me from reaching out to someone new and welcoming a stranger.
I shared Son's story with my kids and it opened up great dialogue -- we may never know the impact our acts of kindness can have on someone, young or old, and we too have found ourselves on the receiving end of someone else's kindness.
• Becky Baudouin is a freelance writer and speaker. She lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband, Bernie, and their three daughters.