The day Paola taught her teacher a lesson in kindness

Compassionate hero

By Trevor Scott Barton

Nine out of ten students at my school in South Carolina come from families whose income level meets the federal guidelines for poverty. Paola, an immigrant kid from El Salvador, is one of them. She is a first-grader and she lives in a small apartment with her grandma, mom, sister and uncle.

Her family’s low income means she is likely to suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate health care, an inferior education and a bad future. I’m struggling against her life-crushing poverty with all of the compassion, creativity and commitment that I can find inside of me.

I know about her poverty but today I celebrate her riches.

Elementary school teacher reading to students. Not the children mentioned in this story. Photo by Melodie Davis.

I see her as Paola, first-grade hero, with compassionate eyes, intuitive mind and big heart.

A new student named Billy walked into her classroom recently.

“Hi,” Paola whispered to him as he sat down beside her. “I’m glad you’re in our class.”

She doesn’t know the story of the suffering that brings him to our school, but perhaps she recognizes something familiar in his taut face, quivering voice and shaking hands.

“This is your journal. It goes in your desk, like this,” she explained. “These are our crayons and markers. You can use them if you want to. Don’t worry. There’s lots to learn. I’ll help you.”

I’ll help you.

Kindness is so beautiful. I’m a teacher, but I have so much to learn from my students.

Later that day, I sat beside Paola in the lunchroom.

“Why did you want to help Billy,” I asked.

“Oh, I remember when I was the new student,” she said. “And sometimes I feel the way he looked when he sat down beside me. I just wanted to be kind to him. It helps when people are kind to me. He’s my neighbor.”

Yep, I know about Paola’s poverty. But today I know her riches, too. I lament that poverty and will fight like everything for nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children, quality public schools, aid to low-income college students and universal health care. But I’m thankful it hasn’t hardened her heart. I’m thankful her heart is soft and sympathetic to the world around her.

And I’ll follow her example and say, “I’ll help you. I just want to be kind to you,” to my neighbors, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Thanks for showing me the way, Paola.


Trevor Scott Barton
Greenville, SC 29607

Trevor submitted this as peace story in response to the Wider View column last week, “Challenging False Narratives About Immigration.”