Essentially Good

People are essentially, innately good. For Martin Luther King, Jr., this was the crux of nonviolence – you are acting on the goodness within you in an attempt to draw this goodness out of your enemy. The more one lives, the more sees this goodness yearning to get out, yearning for a chance to make itself known. Theologians voice this belief in citing that we are “created in the image of God.” Yes, there is not enough kindness and love in the world, but that is only because so few people are living up to their potential.

As a teacher, I am always wrestling with the fact that I am messing with people’s lives. However much I wish to pass on certain values and philosophies that I hold dear, I fully realize that there is a fine line between impressing values upon my students and preaching dogmatically. Even though I am uber-excited about nonviolence or faith or service, I work hard to make it a choice for them rather than a requirement. But when I simply suggested service in my classroom, it was met with vocal excitement. In the first 6 weeks, my 130 ENGLI students volunteered more than 250 hours in the community. I suggested a few ideas, but many of them came up with their own – mowing a neighbor’s lawn, cutting hair for free, helping practice with a middle school basketball team, tutoring students at a nearby elementary students, teaching ESL at my Wednesday night adult literacy sessions. As the good work started coming in, it was all I could do not to cry with pride.

Shockingly, for many of the students this was their first time ever volunteering. To see them wield a rake at the zoo or happily help a neighbor, one would think they’d been doing it for years. All it took was a suggestion, a simple assignment. Apparently, no one had ever told them that it was a good idea to do some pro-bono work for the community even if it was not ordered from the court. Perhaps teachers in the past had thought students in the poorest city in the United States wouldn’t be willing to help out others. Maybe teachers figured these students didn’t need to add volunteer work to their resumes because they would not be applying to college or “those” types of jobs.

Whatever the reason, all it took was for me to volunteer with them one time for these students to see its utility in the community. As for those who didn’t think teenagers or students receiving free/reduced lunch would wish to volunteer, it is imperative to remember one of life’s greatest paradoxes – the surest way to feel better about yourself is to lose focus of yourself by helping others. Whenever we volunteer, we begin to see the innate goodness in those we serve, and in turn, our own goodness coming through.

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