The Impact of Kindness: Riches and Regrets

01/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It is the time of year to look back and remember and to look forward and hope. I am now the mother of four and the grandmother of five and have been married for the second time for almost 30 years. I have some major regrets in my life, mostly centering on ways that I could have better handled the stresses of my divorce in regard to my children. And I have done my best to discuss this with them and to apologize for my limitations.

But beyond this, I find myself looking back and remembering those who showed me enormous kindness -- as well as opportunities for kindness to those I had not been deeply involved with, who reached out, and who I did not know how to respond to. I wonder if you have any of these periods of reflections and wondering, and if you would be comfortable writing about them and sharing.

Here is one that I think of with some regularity. It involved a very kind and hard working professional, who was the vice principal of a large public high school that I attended. Because I had been elected president of the school, it was my job to meet with a man I will call Dr. Joyce regularly about student activities such as the honor club outreach programs, the charity involvements in our school, the activities to better involve the students from abroad who attended our school, etc. Though I did not realize it at the time, our principal disliked Dr. Joyce enormously and created a liason against him with the other vice principal, a woman.

The principal and his female colleague were very stern task makers, and did not have the heart and sensitivity of Dr. Joyce, who was especially interested in why certain students with enormous gifts just did not try. He would suggest certain ways that I could try to involved them in activities that would speak to them, and would say, astutely, I now understand: "Something must be hurting them very much, perhaps at home, or they would care about themselves more."

Dr. Joyce's "colleagues" would put him down publicly: I remember the time that the principal (who did not have a doctorate) announced Dr. Joyce's completion of a PhD at an assembly, concluding with the words: "But he is not principal anywhere." At the time I knew that I felt uncomfortable, but I did not grasp the hostility and ill will of these words.

On one occasion Dr. Joyce and his wife invited the members of student council to dinner at their home. Mrs. Joyce went to so much trouble! There was delicious fried chicken, peas, salad, and apple pie. But for me the food highlight of the evening was the best (from scratch -- I saw their creation, and I am almost sure it was the time before "instant") mashed potatoes that I have tasted -- from that day to this. In the kitchen, helping Mrs. Joyce, I asked it she had any children. She responded that her husband and she had a daughter who died and then graciously changed the subject.

On the afternoon before my high school graduation, at the conclusion of our final meeting, I saw that Dr. Joyce was crying. I did not know what to do, what to say. I just looked at him. And then he said, "I once loved someone so much like you and she died." His words and their intensity numbed me: I did not know how to respond to this aching, lonely and caring man. And so I said nothing.

I never returned to my high school after graduating. I have heard that our principal died a painful death involving cancer, but I do not know what happened to Dr. and Mrs. Joyce. I regret that I never visited Dr. Joyce to thank him for his sensitivity and his caring and his concern for others and to tell him all that it taught me. I believe it would have made a difference to him.

I would like so much to know what you remember about fleeting relationships that have left their marks....