The necessity to be kind

I title this bi-monthly column, “The Short List,” because I intend as my subject whatever is at the top of my concerns, interests, irritations, despairs or delights ““ you get the idea ““ as I compose the essay.

That being my plan, it shames me to confess that I’ll be lying in this first one:  my No. 1 concern interest (see paragraph above) is the acclimation of two young cats from feral to housebound.  Right now the new home of Tux and Atticus is my screened back porch, safely separated from the unseemly curiosity of my two tame cats, the recently adopted stray part-Schnauzer and the poodle pack.

After only a bit of careful consideration, I realized that reflection on this adventure, fascinating as it is to me, would appeal only to a handful of crazy cat ladies and a few colleagues who get pleasure from scanning whatever I write so they can note errors in grammar and phrasing.

Of course, I don’t have any idea what my readership is ““ if it exists at all ““  but I’m sure feral cat rescue isn’t a hot topic.  So, I turn to No. 2 on my “short list:”  beginning another academic year.

I’ve read the first two issues of this student-edited paper, and two articles, in particular, moved me ““ Leslie Barrett’s “Would You Still Be My Friend?” in which she describes her changed life after contracting Lyme disease which led to Bell’s Palsy, and first year Julie Robinson’s comments on “transitional difficulties.”

Although there’s great disparity in the challenges these two writers explore, they both motivate me to consider one of the qualities which I believe has always and must always be a fundamental characteristic of members of this community, both the old and the young ““ the necessity to be kind.

Decades ago I quit lecturing from a podium at the front of the classroom, instructing my students on what they should conclude about our readings ““ “Erdrich’s message here is”¦” or “The meaning of this stanza is”¦”  or “The most memorably drawn character in this novel must be”¦” –  I began, instead, to lead discussions of the text.

What could be more fun and more challenging, I reasoned, than sitting around a room with a group of other intelligent, articulate people, examining a text ““ welcoming one another’s opinions, agreeing or disagreeing with them in civil discourse?  (Okay, rescuing feral cats could, but I promised that was not my topic.)

Leading such sessions and having them go well requires, obviously, a certain level of patience and self-control from both professor and students, so I include in my “course policies” two admonitions: “In discussions and in critiquing the work of peers, be respectful, civil, and constructive,” and, “Be attentive and engaged in class. Consider the possibility that occasional hypocrisy is better than rudeness, engagement better than disengagement.”

I saw “Mean Girls” long before Lohan went awry, and I’ve read Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” more than once, so I know that adolescents can be remarkably snarky, but, gee, here we all are at this remarkable institution ““ in this supportive community, populated by the intellectually gifted ““ with a chance for a fresh start.  Fresh not only in the way we treat others, but also in the way we treat ourselves.

Since many reading this have no earthly idea who I am, I choose to underscore my theme by quoting a few writers whose advice, perhaps, you will heed.

Ms. Anonymous: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

The poet, Stevie Smith: “I was too far out all my life/and not waving but drowning.”

Novelist, Herman Hesse: “It is only important to love the world and to treat ourselves and all beings with love, admiration, and respect.”

And, hoping you will take his language in context and not be overly offended, from my all-time favorite, Kurt Vonnegut:  “Hello, babies.  Welcome to earth.  It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It’s round and wet and crowded.  At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here.  There’s only one rule I know of, babies: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I spent my first full day of work on the Trinity campus on June 15, 1958, so, although you might calculate the years and conclude that surely I’m addled, ignore that, risk trusting me simply because I’ve been here so long, and practice what I preach in my first of this year’s Short Lists.

You won’t regret it.

Coleen Grissom is a professor of English.