Blog: Growing empathy in St. Louis
By Mark Taylor
Joshua Saleem, peace education director with AFSC in St. Louis, came to our classroom to lead a discussion on empathy. This was kind of a new topic to our students. They are not normally asked to think about how others may feel in a certain situation. By the end of the hour, the discussion seemed to really sink in.
The next day, we reviewed the previous day's discussion, and we talked about how we could act on empathy in our community. We talked about the needs people may have in Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis. We talked about how we could try to meet some of those needs.
The first suggestion was to go to a local retirement facility. A couple students felt uncomfortable with that idea, but the suggestions really started to flow after that.
It was finally agreed by all to spend time at a local children's hospital with the goal of befriending and entertaining kids in the terminal wing. None of the students have experience of this type. They all liked the idea of giving to someone who may not have long to live on earth.
My students go through phases in their lives where they may feel they won't have much of a future. They spend some of their lives in fear, hungry and alone. They are familiar with violent streets and domestic uncertainty. I feel ashamed that I never would have pictured them wanting to give to others that are less fortunate.
A week later I asked if they were still interested. They all said yes. We talked about what we could do for kids in the terminal wing. They have suggested parties, games, performances, art projects and just talking to the kids.
We are now in a phase where we are talking about raising money to take one of our buses. We know it costs about $135 a day. We know we want to spend about two hours with the kids. We will eat fast food then spend a little time together talking about the experience.
This topic and this idea would not have popped up had it not been for the time with Joshua Saleem. This is my third year as an Interpersonal Relations teacher, and I feel a great deal of hope for this group in particular—definitely more so than previous years. Each year, students are evaluated by teachers according to behaviors that may need extra support.
The students are then chosen and placed with a team of teachers. The students generally are struggling with issues regarding attendance, educational engagement or more intense issues such as aggressive behaviors—both physical and verbal. Over 90 percent of our students are on the Free and Reduced Lunch Plan. Over 10 percent of our student population is homeless.
My hope is that we will find a way to raise money for the school bus so the students can continue to experience empathy and giving to others. They are embarking on life-changing steps.
Mark Taylor teaches Interpersonal Relations at McCluer High School in St. Louis.