When my fifth-grade daughter was late coming home from school one day, I didn’t think much of it at first.
My third-grade son walked through the front door alone, tossed his backpack into the corner, and lunged toward the snack bar, otherwise known as my pantry shelf – a slab of painted wood that buckles beneath all the empty carbs.
“Where’s your sister?” I asked.
“She stayed after school with a friend,” he explained, loading his cheeks with puffed corn.
I shrugged. My daughter had just turned eleven years old and I’d been experimenting with letting her walk with friends after school to the library, or the local tween packy – a catchall general store where the underage in our town pick up their bubble gum and kitsch.
We didn’t have such an afterschool plan in place that day. Still, it seemed plausible that my daughter might decide to hang around after school a few minutes longer than her younger brother. Maybe things were happening among fifth graders – the girls in particular – that she would explain to me later, at bedtime, when we were doing our daily check in.
I had been expecting some great tectonic shift in her world: my daughter was approaching middle school, thereby teetering on the edge of massive structural changes to her social, emotional, and physical life. What’s more, she had once agonized about feeling different from her peers simply because she was a vegetarian. This year, with her parents soon to be divorced, she had all the more reason to feel isolated.
When she finally breezed through the door that afternoon, my daughter was breathless.
“Hey!” I greeted her, my tone like a question mark.
“Heart Company!” she called back, flushed and happy.
I traced her steps around the dining room table while she peeled off her jacket and let loose her ponytail. Her long, brown hair fell between her shoulder blades in tangles, like a bedraggled squirrel dray. She sat down and I stood behind her with a brush in hand, working through small sections of her hair, apologizing as she winced and groaned.
“So, what’s Heart Company?” I asked.
She explained that several weeks earlier, she and her best friend – the two of them inseparable since first grade – had started a two-person club.
I frowned at first, worried that my daughter might have stumbled into something exclusive. She was sweet and empathetic, but I knew that girls could battle their own feelings of exclusion by making others feel excluded instead. Having stepped on that hornet’s nest when I was her age, I was eager to help her avoid it.
My daughter quickly explained that it had all started when she and her friend discovered a stash of sticky note pads near their teacher’s desk. The notes, they determined, would be the perfect avenue to deliver positive, inspiring messages to their classmates. The messages would be even more effective if they were waiting on students’ desks at the start of the school day.
Just like that, on a whim of kindness with an airy plot, Heart Company had been founded.
Each day since, when the final school bell rang, my daughter and her friend had been staying behind while their classmates filed out the door and into afternoons of overscheduled, parent-driven chaos. That’s when Heart Company got to work, devising creative ways to shore up their peers, just because.
The notes were sometimes specific, often general, and always anonymous. “Just be yourself!” said one. “I love your pencil drawings!” said another.
They were sweet little nothings, really, but to other students, they meant everything. I supposed that receiving one of these notes was like waking up to a gift from the tooth fairy – glimmering anticipation combined with the element of surprise.
Excitement for the idea raged faster than emoji pillows or fidget spinners – everyone wanted in, and stat. Some students claimed to be Heart Company when they weren’t. Others claimed to know the true identity of Heart Company when they didn’t.
Eventually, my daughter and her friend unveiled their identities to their classmates, and they took Heart Company on the road, or at least down the hall. They recruited a handful of friends to join their team and asked other teachers’ permission to enter neighboring classrooms and spread the love.
Recently, one of my daughter’s teachers mentioned Heart Company to the Assistant Superintendent, who asked for permission to allow my daughter and her best friend to start a Heart Company Twitter feed. (Follow them @HeartCompanyWIN)
The Superintendent’s office was right to take note – after rolling out a social-emotional program three years ago in each of the five elementary schools in our school district, they had hoped their students would learn to be more mindful of how emotions and behavior can connect to yield positive results. Heart Company was a perfect manifestation of the program’s goals.
Would that each of us could take full credit for instilling our own values into our children and our students. Instead, parenting, like teaching, is actually an intricate blend of exposure and release, the most difficult piece of which is stepping out of the way to let children lead parts of their own learning process.
We parents in particular often put so much pressure on our kids to meet the goals we hold for them that we forget about our children’s own instincts and intuition. Certainly, we want to help our children become the kind of people we’d like them to be, but what if they already are?
It occurred to me then that perhaps mean behavior between children – especially girls – only occurs when those children have lost their sense of self.
Most of us gravitate toward the things that make us feel good, and only we can say what those things are. If we find ways to encourage children to discover those things, we are teaching them to be themselves, and the positive behavior we want to see will follow naturally. I give kudos to my children’s teachers and school administration for understanding and encouraging this model.
While I was waiting around to see how early adolescence would go for my daughter, what trouble would arise and in what way, my fear took hold. I know this is why I was a terrible soccer goalie at my daughter’s age – the anticipation of getting kicked in the face with a ball nearly killed me. I should have known that my daughter was doing just fine – it turns out that she and her best friend were killing it with kindness, all on their own.