The Power of an Act of Kindness: A Reality Worth Recognizing

Karen Gross
6 min readJun 6, 2024

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Art by Karen Gross (2024); Eclipse Series #7; Now Showing at Rockport Art Museum, MA

I want to share two seemingly unrelated incidents, both of which have affected me profoundly. They relate in one way or another to meanness and kindness and our individual and collective priorities. Taken together with a third incident that just occurred today (only hours ago), I am starting to see a ray of light that seemed awfully dim at the start of today.

Let’s start with the two events from the last few days.

The Virtual Teachers Lounge Meeting

For the last several months, the Virtual Teachers Lounge (an online resource for teachers across the globe to share and get advice that will help them and their students www.vtl4today.com) has had meetings focused primarily on meanness. In this context, we are talking about meanness in and across the educational system: meanness between students; meanness between teachers; meanness between students and teachers; meanness between administrators and teachers; and last but surely not least parental/ familial meanness to their children and school administrators and teachers.

While the VTL’s focus is on educational meanness as just described, we are living in a world filled with meanness, a topic on which I have written with some frequency. And wheresoever meanness occurs, it leaves those in its path upset, concerned, angry, sad, frustrated, anxious and disquieted — — among other emotions.

The meeting of VTL last evening shared the initial results of a survey VTL is conducting with educators on meanness. While the full results are not completed yet (as the survey is still being completed by some educators), let’s just say the results are not pretty. They are downright disquieting. Meanness in education has been worse this school year, according to initial respondents than it has been in the past; these individuals responded that it is not likely to improve next year; and meanness is affecting educators’ wellness and desire to continue teaching.

Can you hear a YEEK (albeit a preliminary one)?

Another Incident

I have recently returned (as some regular readers know) from an 8 day medical mission (where I was one of two translators) to the Dominican Republic. It has, as I will share in the future, affected me in many ways. I am still processing the experience and I have been home for two weeks.

It is in this context that when I visited my neighbor several days ago (her dog and mine are boyfriend and girlfriend), she was in a tizzy. There was a fly in her home. Seriously ONE fly. She had already installed fly traps and was dashing about in search of the lone fly. She had ordered more traps. This fly had apparently scared her dog so much that the dog hid and was terrified. (I couldn’t make up such an absurdity if I tried.) I quipped to the neighbor that a trip to the DR might not be to her liking as there are plentiful bugs there. “Well,” she replied, “my dog doesn’t speak Spanish so she won’t be going.” I kid you not.

Given all I saw and experienced in the DR, I couldn’t believe the time and expenditures and attention that one fly was receiving. A nation (among many) is experiencing severe poverty and disease and political corruption and an absence of clean water and consistent electricity and someone in my neighborhood is thinking about and spending money to eradicate a fly.

The incident left me speechless. Between meanness in schools and a total absence of priorities in life, I felt the world was going to hell in a hand-basket (an aphorism I need to research).

Trip to NYC

So, off I fly off this morning to NYC (from Boston) for a variety of activities of a wide ranging sort over the next three days. My dog and cat are being cared for and the weather wasn’t bad and the flight (short to be sure) was on time. While I travel often, it isn’t always easy for many reasons but today was proceeding swimmingly as these things go.

Somewhere mid-flight (after I had dozed for a bit), a flight attendant came up to me (Delta is my favorite airline) and said: “Are you Karen Gross?” He had my name on his phone and some data about me. I was a tad worried actually. I answered, “yes.” And he said, “I’d like to give you 2500 miles that will deposited into your frequent flyer account.”

First I’m thinking I must be dreaming. Then I thought this must be a scam (with some mandatory credit card uptake). But it was neither apparently. It was simply a gesture of kindness that the airlines allows the flight attendants to disburse at their discretion (I assume). Perhaps the airline tells the flight attendant to be kind to a particular passenger. Imagine that: empowering employees to do acts of kindness.

OK, I can hear the cynics among you. This is some marketing plan to keep customers happy and show customer service. And, 2500 miles isn’t enough to get you an upgrade, let alone a free ticket. And, this is probably some corporate mandate.

To be sure, two weeks ago, I had completed a Delta survey and gave everything high marks. If the survey responses and the free miles are linked, more power to Delta. Even though the survey did not have my name, I am sure they could figure it out through some simple algorithm.

Lessons Learned

In a world filled with meanness and messed up priorities, one small act made a difference to me today. And, were I guessing, the flight attendant was rather pleased too. It felt good to do something for someone — an act of kindness.

This got me thinking: what if we empowered folks to deliver acts of kindness within their schools or workplaces? A little kindness goes a long way, if how I felt today was any example. What if we made giving acts of kindness something that was incorporated into school culture or a business culture?

Imagine ….. just imagine.

An announcement that certain teachers can leave early one day or there is free coffee for them in the cafeteria or there is a person to take over the class so teachers can take 10 minutes and go to the bathroom. A card, a note, a flower from the principal or superintendent.

As I recall, there have been days in the US calendar dedicated to random acts of kindness and then there are special people who pick up the tab at a bar or restaurant or grocery story for the person behind them or near them. There are commencement speakers who literally give $$$$ to graduates (and one recently generated controversy but that’s a story for another day) or eliminate the loans of the graduates they are addressing. These are isolated incidents albeit good ones.

That’s all nice and good. But the Delta flight attendant’s actions must be part of a systemic approach Delta is taking to maintain a service culture as well as giving their employees an opportunity to do good. Perhaps it is random; perhaps not.

I could be all wrong here as to whether this is a Delta initiative with roots, but it struck me as something reflective of a pronounced priority Delta was now giving to both its passengers and its flight attendants. Agency. Power. Capacity. Kindness.

The academic in me did some wee research. One can get miles on Delta if one complains. One can get miles on Delta if one reports some bad worker. One can get miles on Delta if one’s seat doesn’t lay flat. But, I got miles on Delta for no apparent reason.

My point is this: it doesn’t take hard work to be kind. It can be small acts of kindness embedded in a culture — a gift giving culture. To be mean takes energy and it is bad for one’s health. Fretting about a fly can’t be good for one’s wellness. Resetting priorities isn’t easy but being upset over a fly (so to speak) isn’t worth one’s breath.

Bottom line: I have long advocated for kindness activities and kindness rock projects within our educational system. I have incorporated gift giving into the educational settings where I was a leader and into my friendships. (I just gave a “random” gift to a friend who had listened to my various life events).

There’s a lesson here: it doesn’t take all that much to make someone feel better. And, what’s wrong with that? Answer: nothing at all, other than the shock of being treated kindly.

And, readers, what if we all tried this?

Imagine….Just imagine.

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Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor