The Kindness of Strangers: Part One

I think what makes the kindness of strangers so powerful is the fact that it’s unexpected. We’re not looking for people we don’t know to go that extra mile for us, the way we hope family and close friends always will. And that’s why those small acts of kindness have the power to sweep us off our feet.

Take for instance, the incredible story forwarded to me this week by a friend at Carleton University. Confronting Asperger’s in the classroom is a lovely gem, wonderfully written, that tells the tale of several Carleton students who have Asperger’s Syndrome and how they, with their professor’s help, are navigating the maze of university life.

I was struck by two things right away: first I was moved by how a bit of extra effort on the professor’s part yielded such incredible dividends on the part of the student. The time he took to understand his student and adapt his style meant the difference between someone just ‘getting by’ or reaching their full potential. I was also struck by the reciprocal nature of his gift – how his kindness enriched him and opened his eyes to Asperger’s students and their particular needs and abilities.

I can imagine when dealing with students how difficult it must be to build relationships and how much easier it is to focus on things like ‘outcomes’ and ‘compliance’ and ‘socially acceptable behaviour.’ 

Now I See the Moon, by Elaine Hall

I’m reading a book right now called Now I See the Moon. It chronicles the journey of Elaine Hall, an L.A. acting coach for kids who adopts a young boy from Russia and soon finds out he is autistic. Her story is full of wonderful insight, starting with the book’s title, which finds its origins in a Japanese haiku:

 Barn’s burnt down –


I can see the moon.

That poem just makes me giddy with unexpected delight – how something you assume is awful is actually a hidden gift. Hall devoted years of her own working life to her son’s education and I was struck by her focus on meeting her son ‘where he lived,’ rather than trying to pull him into our neurotypical world. The people working with her son weren’t focused on changing his behaviours at first, they were focused on understanding those behaviours, matching them, and then using the resulting connection to build a relationship with her son. Once that relationship was established trust was able to grow and new doors opened.

When I read the article about the prof at Carleton University I felt the same way. He took the time to listen and learn, and the doors opened wide – not only for him, but for his students too.



Filed under Books & articles, Celebrating Difference, Family

7 responses to “The Kindness of Strangers: Part One

  1. You’re right, it’s the unexpected kindness that takes us off guard that often is the most memorable. Even the smallest gestures can make someone’s day. I try and remember this when I’m out and about and surrounded by “strangers.” Actions can go a long way!

    • Thanks for commenting Stephanie. Nice to ‘meet’ you. I just checked out your blog and loved your New Year’s resolution. I haven’t talked about faith yet, but it plays a key role in my life too. All the best and keep on trucking girl! Anne-Marie

  2. This is a lovely piece AM. It is incredible what is possible when people have open attitudes and respect for the dignity and contribution of every person. As that Carleton music prof said: “It’s a subtle business to make sure you don’t marginalize someone.” I hope you send a link to him. Thanks for sharing the origin of that quote about the barn! I am looking forward to The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2! xo

    • Thanks for the comment Louise. I just finished the book and now I can’t wait to watch Autism: The Musical. It’s an incredible documentary that tells the tale of Elaine’s work with a group of kids on the spectrum who come together and eventually produce and star in their own musical! xoam

  3. df

    I heard the Carleton U story on CBC radio the other day and have been meaning to mention it to you AM. The article is new to me and shades in more of the story in a very nice way. What touched me in the radio piece was the honesty of one of the professors, who admitted that previously he had considered students displaying the kinds of behaviours typical of AS to be ‘jerks’ (I think I’m remembering the term correctly). The attention being devoted to understanding non-mainstream ‘thinkers’ is inspiring and the attendant kindness is key.

    • Hi Dagne,
      Great to hear from you and thanks for commenting. I will look for the CBC story you mentioned…the power of getting to know just one person is incredible isn’t it? How this one student had the power to open his eyes. I feel like Ryan has done for us – forever changed the way we look at (and frankly, judge, other people). We are much more open now. Hidden gifts!

  4. I am eagerly awaiting Part 2! Can’t wait to hear about some more acts of kindness. xo

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