An Important Lesson on Empathy

I don’t have an extensive memory cache from my early childhood. I often confuse what I think I remember versus what I feel might have been a questionable recollection told to me by someone else. I have a handful of vivid memories from that stage in my life and the rest are hazy. My first day of kindergarten is one of those memories that I seem to have etched into my mind.

At that age, I had very little experience with being cared for outside a home setting (i.e. daycare). My parents worked a lot, but we were lucky to have my grandparents (for the most part) or other relatives care for us during the day. In fact, my only experience with school at age 2 was the horrifying account of what my older sister’s first day of kindergarten was like.

You know when an unfortunate incident happens to someone who’s far removed from you (for instance, maybe a friend of a friend of a friend), and the unfortunate thing is perhaps they fell on their face ice-skating while showing off or maybe a bird shat on their head in front of their first date? (How mortifying!) The first thought that selfishly comes to mind for me is: “Wooahh, thank God that wasn’t me! Phew!“

Well, that was precisely the thought process of 2-year-old-me when I unknowingly accompanied my mom to deliver my older sister for her first day of kindergarten. My sister was beside herself with mortal anguish. I remember her shrieks, the tugging and, oh, the crying. The seasoned teacher helped pry my sister’s grasp from my mom’s leg as she held on for dear life while I stood behind my mom hoping I wouldn’t be meeting the same fate (because whatever fate it was, it must’ve been terrifying by the looks of this dramatic scene). Finally, just as my mom’s leg was freed from the Jaws of Life that was my sister’s miniature arms, she picked me up and ran like hell. Okay, maybe it wasn’t like hell and I don’t actually remember running but I do remember thinking, “Sheeessh, thank God that wasn’t me!”

Fast forward two years later and I was inevitably in the same shoes as my sister. As we approached the school, memories of my sister’s beautiful hellish first day of school came flooding back to me. The rhythmic beat of my heart increased by the millisecond, and it echoed so loud in my ears I thought everyone could hear my fear. Once in front of the open classroom door, I surveyed my surroundings, swallowed hard and stoically waved bye to my mom who was already half way out the damn door. I didn’t have the right words to process my emotions at the time, but I do remember understanding that I had two distinct options: I could scream, cry and be paralyzed in fear or I could be quiet, do as I’m told and get through the day hoping that my mother would be back for me by day’s end. As a timid little girl, I was more afraid of embarrassment than total abandonment from a parental caregiver, so I automatically chose the latter option. I nervously assimilated to my surroundings and clung to my teacher’s side the whole day.

When it was my little sister’s turn to hit that kindergarten milestone, the whole family dropped her off. Although, naturally, my older sister and I had to attend the same school in the upper grades, so we tagged along to see her off before attending our own classrooms. My little sister was obviously upset and anxious about all the new experiences to come. She was always referred to as the baby of the family so instinctively we were all protective of her and felt it was our duty as those who had come out the other side to reassure her that she’d be alright too. One by one, we each gave her a hug and went on our way to our own respective classes. By mid-morning, I asked to be excused to use the washroom down the hall but instead, I snuck off to my little sister’s class and (on tip-toes) I peered through the glass window on the door just to make sure she was okay. I saw her sitting across from another kid playing a puzzle together with her teacher close by. In that moment, I remember feeling relieved, smiling to myself, and then skipping off to class. I didn’t know what empathy was then, but I know that was the first time I remember feeling what I now know is the emotion of empathy.

I was inspired by a fellow blogger, Jennie Fitzkee, to recount these long-buried memories. Jennie is a dedicated and gifted preschool teacher who is fiercely passionate about reading aloud to her students. She believes the act of reading aloud to children increases their confidence, piques their curiosity, and helps develop their early learning skills. She recently wrote a post about author Robert Fulghum who wrote a book called “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

In her post, Jennie quotes an important passage in Robert Fulghum’s book:

These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Flush.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life –
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

This is such a basic concept but I bet not many of us (at least not me) have thought about it in its simplest form. Jennie writes that Robert Fulghum’s work has stayed with her throughout her teaching career. She adds, “I knew that the little things mattered the most, because they were really the big things in life.”

Indeed, all I needed to know in life I learned in kindergarten, especially empathy.

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34 thoughts on “An Important Lesson on Empathy

  1. What a sweet post and wow that takes me down memory lane. Heart melt for you checking on your little sister like that! Since I have a twin we did kindergarten together but were in different classrooms next to each other. And my twin remembers (I don’t) the day she was going to be quizzed on tying her shoes. And she was freaking out bc she couldn’t do it. And she remembers me sneaking over and showing her how, being patient with her, and giving her the confidence to do it. I don’t know if she passed ha! But I do remember always having those big sister protective vibes even tho we were twins 👯‍♀️ awww, so sweet! Love these stories! 🌺🌺🌺❤️❤️❤️

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    • Thanks Libby! 🙂 That’s so amazing you guys got to experience milestones together. Although, I could envision the cons of that too (being a twin and probably wanting your own experiences and not be lumped as one person)? It’s so sweet when you think back to the things we worried about as kids (or hear what kids these days worry about)- something so innocent about how life was so simple at that age and the biggest worries melt away as you get older (although, we trade them in for more complicated issues) lol…

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  2. What a sweet and sad story at the same time! I feel so bad for your older sister and your 4 year old self. But what a precious memory of the first time you recognized empathy, and how kind of you to not want your younger sister to be as scared as you were. This story makes me want to give all those scared little girls the biggest hug ever! ❤

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    • Yea, when we went back to get her at the end of the day she was hiding under a table! 😦 poor thing! But she turned out perfectly fine 🙂 It’s something we all have to eventually go through. This story makes me appreciate kindergarten teachers. They’re not just teachers, their nurturers and caregivers as well! There’s something so special about kindergarten teachers! 🥰

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  3. Okay, prepare yourself for another Springer marathon comment.😊 First off, great minds think alike. I just posted about Jennie yesterday on my blog, although not about the same topic. https://petespringerauthor.wordpress.com/2021/10/19/jennie-fitzkee-teacher-of-teachers/

    School administrators come in all forms. I had some who, unthinkably (maybe they were swamped with other things, but I’m not letting them off the hook that easily), would allow a kid to wander down to the class by themselves! Makes me want to scream when I think about it! Children and their parents quite naturally feel some separation anxiety. Wouldn’t any decent principal realize their first role was to reassure the child and parents by bringing them down to meet the teacher?
    On the other hand, one fabulous principal I worked for had a room for parents on the first day of kindergarten. After they dropped their child off, they could assemble, have a cup of cider or coffee, talk to other parents experiencing the same separation feelings, and perhaps most importantly, hear from the principal and listen to her tell similar stories of her own children. It’s a new step for parents and children alike, and schools should go the extra mile to make the transition smoother.

    Finally, I laughed when you mentioned the example of being grateful for not being the one who felt mortified for falling on one’s face when showing off. Here was my shining moment: I had many eyes on LeeAnn Dodge, the neighborhood cutie, for a long time. I tried everything to get her to notice me (Eleven-year-old boys lack creativity.) One day she and her cheerleader friend were practicing their routines in the front yard. Being the suave and sophisticated boy that I was, I figured it would be an ideal time to ride by on my bike with no hands. They looked over at me, and I smiled back at them. It was all so perfect until I ran into a parked car!!! I tried to save what little dignity I had left by hopping onto my bike and riding off into the sunset. Of course, my bike was mangled and allowed no such graceful exit. Perhaps I should write an instruction manual for other boys. 🤣

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    • That’s amazing that we posted about Jennie around the same time! LOL How funny!

      Wow, what your principal did makes so much sense and sounds amazing! Now that I’m a parent, having that reassurance would mean the world to me- especially the first time I dropped Charlotte off at daycare! I couldn’t believe this meatball that I’d be keeping a close hawk-eye on for 18 months was now going to be separated from me and I was supposed to trust a stranger to keep her well and alive (the way I would have wanted)! It was very mind-bending to say the least! So yes, some reassurance and support would have been helpful then, too!

      Oy! We’ve all had those LeeAnn Dodge moments! It’s always the worst when it’s in front of your secret crush that you spend hours of your life daydreaming about as a preteen!!! LOL

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  4. My memory of getting ready for my first day of Kindergarten: My mother is in front of the mirror calmly putting on lipstick while I am clinging to one of her legs crying that I do not want to go. My brother (one year younger) is clinging to her other leg crying because he does not understand why he cannot go.

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  5. That’s a lovely story. I love how you checked on your little sister. I remember seeing the kids screaming and clinging to their parents when I took my daughters to school on the first day and feeling for the parents. When I dropped my older daughter off for her first day of kindergarten, she marched inside like she had been going there her whole life without even looking back. That’s her personality though. Our younger daughter is much more cautious, but she had been so used to seeing her sister go to school, it felt normal to her and there was little drama.

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    • Yes, I so believe having an older sibling makes younger siblings more courageous in a way. It’s so interesting to see how personalities are so set from such a young age. The way my older responded to a new experience is sort of the same way she approaches new experiences now, with much outward trepidation. I definitely feel anxious but I keep it in and can’t seem to openly express it as freely as she does. We can all do with a bit of both I think! 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Michelle!

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  6. Such a heart warming post. I love how you went to check up on your lil sister, reminds me of my own older sister. She used to check up on me ever so often when we were in school. Once we were older, I’d go to her to beg for money to buy treats from the canteen. 🤣
    Empathy is so important, more so in today’s world. Though I do think empaths get the rough end of the deal. My empathy has put me in situations where I looked foolish. 🙈

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    • So true- empathy is important but it doesn’t mean letting your guard down completely. I think a good balance is key! While I feel empathetic to any plight my daughter may be feeling, I always have to keep everything in perspective. Giving in to every dramatic breakdown she has would not be doing her any good in terms of discipline. Thanks for reading and sharing, Moksha! 😊

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    • That’s what’s so amazing- things that happen to us at age 2 can be reflected upon later on in life to either teach us a great lesson or get us to appreciate a simple concept! These are also things I want my daughter to one day read about too! 🥰

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  7. Jen, this is such a perfect description of ‘day one’ at school, and all the fears. Your memory of being the big sister and checking in on your little sister is Empathy-101. See, it really is the little things that are most important (I do preach that often.) Thank you so much for mentioning me and Robert Fulghum’s incredible writing.

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  8. Pingback: The week gone by — Oct. 24 – A Silly Place

    • Haha I used to have a bunch of early grade school reports and drawings! I’m not sure what happened to it but it would’ve been amazing to give it to Charlotte one day! 🤪🤷‍♀️ Ah well! Thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a such a lovely post. I can understand how your first experience with kindergarten was memorable. Shaped you for life. I remember reading Fulghum’s book & thinking it was charming– and that his rules were perfect. Would that more adults followed them.

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  10. Beautiful post thank you for sharing🌼🌼🌼 my mom often says I held on and cried every year till primary school I thought my daughter would ensure I felt the same way my mom did but she surprised me think I was more afraid than she was just thinking about how I was. 🌼

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  11. Ah, yes. Junior Kindergarten. We were all sitting on the floor for a teacher reading session. The boy behind me kept pulling my ponytail. 😡

    Also, the girl that used to take me to and from school decided to pull me out of school during recess. She took me to Trinity/Bellwoods park. That park is huge! Especially as a kindergartener. I remember having to go to the bathroom and everytime I had my stocking pulled down, she’d leave the bathroom. So, I’d hike up my stockings and head out to find her. She’d come back in with me and the scenario repeated itself a few times.

    Back at school, the teacher noticed I didn’t return from recess. Cops were called. They found me and the “babysitter” at the park. I remember sitting in the back seat of a yellow police car. Her dad was with us too. It was obvious she was going to get some type of beating when she got home. Not sorry to say, she deserved it.

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