Philosophical thinking makes the world and our place in it more transparent. The fog lifts; connections appear. Clear thinking motivates wise action. This is as true for child philosophers as adults; indeed, sometimes the power of clarity of vision is most remarkable in the hands of the children.
Roaring with beauty, an email from a teacher at an elementary school in rural NW Ohio arrived in my inbox this past week. The story she tells is too good AND it is true! It is an account of a caring teacher who wants to give the world to her students, a lonely child touched by her kindness, and this child's use of philosophical discussion to learn to love herself and to extend this love to others.
Over a year ago, the teacher, Amy, wrote to tell me that she was using my book, Little Big Minds, in her new Philosophy Club. Amy enthused, "Philosophy is one of the most important things to teach (and is as therapeutic for me as it is for the children). We may have hope for the future yet!" She was so pleased that students with learning disabilities were thriving along with their classmates. Amy originally approached the school principal about starting the Club; it is not part of her "job description," but "it is honestly my favorite part of the job. I see these children change and grow and thirst for these discussions that we as teachers don't normally have time during the academic day to have. I feel that it is really turning these children into deep thinking, responsible people."
Now well into her second year with the child philosophers, Amy has created an environment that opened her student Kaelah's heart in a stunning yet quiet and unassuming way. "One day, the 6th graders were to brainstorm things to write about for an autobiography. I took three students into my resource room to get a little extra help. One child was having a particularly hard time coming up with things that meant a lot to her. I asked her about her friends and she said she has no friends and began to get teary. I can tell that this girl is a deep individual.... I talked to her about the way that people like her, who feel things very deeply, can feel sadness more often than others but can also see great beauty that others would pass by. I then asked her why she wasn't in Philosophy Club. She said that she didn't have her permission slip signed. I told her to come anyway. At the end of the day, I got a call from her mom giving verbal permission... and after our first philosophy session, KaeLah gave me a big hug.
"Not long after, she came up to me all excited and said that she had asked her mom for Christmas to help her raise money for a needy classmate. This classmate is very troubled and a bully, without friends, but is also obviously from a distressed family.... KaeLah ended up collecting enough to buy the whole family coats, blankets, a huge turkey dinner, and even a Wii game console (which KaeLah does not have). She said that our discussions about the meaning of friendship and justice had really hit home with her.... A teacher delivered the items right before Christmas and the family only knew that a "classmate did it." Kaelah did not want them to know (and didn't even go to see them receive the gifts). She really took the bully under her wing. I would hear her say things like "Come on, you've been having a good day" or "Great job" on things he accomplished. Joining in Philosophy Club was one of the rewards he got at the end of the week when he met his behavior goals. He has been making great strides...."
I'm privileged to be a tiny part of this love story and for permission to write this piece. Amy and KaeLah warmed not only a neglected family but also everyone who reads about a child's choice to love the school bully. A 12-year-old outsider, pulled in by a sensitive teacher, discovers while discussing friendship and community that bullying originates from a place of fear and festers in feelings of inadequacy. What bully is content, at peace? Her self-esteem grows as KaeLah "can relax and be myself. Philosophy Club has helped me be less stressful and happier." An examination of human dignity and the debilitating consequences of poverty leads her to her Christmas project; clear thinking and compassion link.This child glimpsed an opening and jumped at her chance to restore a sense of dignity and a feeling of belonging to her new friend's family. KaeLah (and of course Amy) are living proof of British philosopher Bertrand Russell's insistence on the value of philosophy to those who study it: "Something radiates from their lives, some light that shows the way to their friends, their neighbors --- perhaps to long future ages."
Wherever we are, whoever we are, we can use this example of impartial love as motivation to extend ourselves. To Amy and KaeLah who never expected their story to be told: Hats off!
Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.