At first, students were limited with their vocabulary and they held back, unsure if they could fulfill the assignment. With gentle encouragement they began writing, slowly at first, and then inspired by their friends, the floodgates opened. They wrote furiously and copiously.
The class formed a circle and I picked a student who was well-liked, to be the starting point. He sat in the front of the class while the other students, one at a time, read his or her complimentary remarks and dropped their written statements into a box. When all students were finished I took their statements and placed them in a folder. The next student was chosen and the process repeated. This continued until each student had been recognized.
Later I typed out the compliments about the first student, creating his unique document. I worked throughout the evening compiling lists of what students had said about each other. Finally, there was one paper for each student filled with compliments.
I gave them out the following day and watched the students glow with pleasure as they read what others had said about them. Even though I was tired from the extra hours of typing, their exhilaration made it all worthwhile. It was a great activity, and I noted it was worthy of repeating the following year.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the lesson was a life-long lesson. That activity was not where the story ends, but really where it begins. Some of the most popular students began reaching out to others. They began including the neglected and verbally abused students in sports activities and in classroom activities. They encouraged and protected them. There were baby steps of improvement. Students began looking for ways to treat others in more positive ways. Those students who had been neglected or felt they were targets of bullies seemed to walk with a lighter step, smiled more often, and began to talk confidently. I was amazed at what was happening.
The class bonded before the year was over. They showed kindness when they talked. They hung out together at school and invited each other to activities outside of the school environment. There were new connections, fresh ways of evaluating old friendships, and innovative ideas for future relationships.
Over the years I kept in contact with many of my former students. There was a cohesiveness that continued to exist. As I talked to them, I learned the car wash was a starting point for new beginnings. My former students still remembered what others in the class had said about them. They told how those positive statements had changed their lives. Their insecurities had been forgotten.
The results of that lesson were more than I had dreamed.
They had learned so much about treating others with kindness and compassion. It was a grand experiment that turned into a real lesson for them and for me. They learned that every person has worth and deserves respect. They had taken that lesson to heart, and as they ventured into the world, they touched others with love and understanding.
By Dan Roberson