In 1985, Robert Fulgham wrote an essay that later became the bestselling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1990). It went viral. Fulgham’s premise was that the simple rules that children learn in kindergarten serve just as well in adult life, such things as:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.

Oh, and “Flush.”

But here’s my problem: I didn’t go to kindergarten. When I was five, my school, a private Christian school, didn’t have kindergarten. We started first grade cold. No kindergarten prep. No getting used to being in a classroom with other kids. No learning the rules for polite society. All of which may explain something about me.

We did have one day of preparation for first grade. Not a whole day, actually, a morning in which we kindergarten-aged kids came to school to learn what we were getting into. Each of us was assigned to a first grader. It was the task of the first grader to show us the ropes.

Well, not the ropes, but the bathrooms. Sometime mid-morning, we filed out of the classroom to the bathroom. This bathroom had urinals. I had no experience with urinals. These were the sort of urinals that rise straight out of the floor. When it was my turn, I walked up and did what I did at home. I dropped my pants and then my drawers to my ankles, standing there bare from the waist down. No one, so far as I remember, laughed. But my first grader host, quietly and gently said to me, waiting until I was done, “You don’t have to let your pants all the way down.”

It was a great kindness. A gift. I remember almost nothing else about that day, but I remember that. I don’t remember my first grader host’s name. I’m not sure I ever knew it. But I remember his quiet kindness. When I entered first grade a few months later, I was ready. I knew the protocol. I wouldn’t embarrass myself. It was the preparation I needed for first grade.

It was in the next year or the one after that, first or second grade—I don’t remember which—that my classmates were flying paper airplanes. It may have recess on a rainy day. I watched from the sidelines, wanting to fly my own paper airplane, but not knowing how to make one. No one had ever shown me how to fold a paper airplane, an essential skill for a grade school boy. And then, miracle of miracles, as I was looking on, one of my classmates walked over and asked me if I wanted to know how to make a paper airplane. I did, and he patiently showed me how.

I have not lost the skill since. I do remember his name, but I’ll not embarrass him by revealing it.

It was another kindness. Out of that entire year I remember little except that kid showing me how to fold paper into an airplane. A small thing, and yet it still looms large in my memory.

Sometime later in my grade school years I joined a Saturday morning bowling league. The league was drawn from kids not only from my school but from the local public school—kids I did not otherwise know. One kid from the public school was the best bowler on my team, a team that like many of my grade school teams was parked near the bottom of the league standings. Part of the reason that our team didn’t do well was, well, me.

One day my bowling reached its early nadir. As I recall, my score was thirty-six. It’s not easy to bowl a thirty-six. In a line of bowling, you have ten frames. For each frame, you get two balls unless you bowl a strike. Then you only get and need one ball. I did not bowl any strikes, so I had twenty chances to roll my ball towards the pins. A thirty-six means that I averaged less than one pin per ball rolled. You can’t get a thirty-six unless you throw a lot of gutter balls, balls that end up in the gutters on the sides of the bowling lane to be funneled harmlessly to the little house at the end of the lane.

In my time, we did not have automatic pinsetters. There were kids back there who picked up and reset the pins and who returned the ball to the bowler. The kid who worked the shift on the day I bowled a thirty-six must have been laughing.

I was devastated. Thirty-six. Thirty-six is beyond awful. It’s an embarrassment, the sort of thing that sixty-five or so years later still makes one cringe. I submitted my resignation.

Well, nothing so formal as that. I said to my teammates loudly and firmly, “I quit.” And, indeed, I meant to. Who needed that sort of embarrassment every Saturday morning.

I went home, stewing in my incompetence, when the phone rang. My mother said, “It’s for you.” On the phone was the public school kid who was our best bowler, and he said to me, “Please don’t quit. We need you on our team.” Something like that. He made me feel wanted.

It was a great kindness. I have not forgotten. It’s what the Bible means by grace which is God saying, “I would like you on my team. We need you.” And saying this to me, even after, I’ve often bowled the equivalent of a thirty-six in life.

I know that kids can be cruel. If I set my mind to it, I can remember cruelties I experienced and, worse, cruelties I perpetrated. But it’s the kindness that stand out from this distance. It’s the power of even small graces. In a time when the world seems a cruel place, it helps to remember that a little kindness goes a long way. To remember especially at Christmas, which was and is a great kindness.



  1. Thanks for your “when small is big” coment.
    I was 5 when my two older siblings were going to school. One day while finding little to do at home, I decided, on my own, to walk to school because I was ready and didn’t want them to get ahead. When l got there my sister advised l could be in big trouble as there were no other 5 yr. old students there and mother was probably wondering if l was lost.
    Have wondered often if life would have gone more smoothly if I had first been able to first graduate from Preschool and Kindergarten.
    Once while reviewing the purpose of Kindergarten with a 5yr. old at our office, suggesting teamwork was one of the main goals, she looked me in the eye and started tapping on my wedding ring while her mother sat quietly with a meaningful smile!
    When small is big!

  2. We do not just remember the kindnesses. We also remember the humiliations. Unfortunately, we cannot forget the latter. Due to the latter, I try to be very sensitive to others facing potential humiliation. The latter also motivates me to do acts of kindness to prevent humiliations of others. Such hurts can cause a person to rise eventually to rage. I keep suspecting in school violence perpetrated by teens is due to hurts that cause a person to rise to rage against his peers and adults who tolerate it and in some ways act as a role model in humiliating others. Each kindness may help avert a young person from turning to rage from the loneliness, hurt and anger arising from humiliation and may even motivate him or her to do acts of kindness.

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