In the movie Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a captured Soviet spy who speaks little and emotes never. Tom Hanks, his American lawyer, questions him about how he can be so unemotional when it looks as if he were heading toward the death penalty, and Abel answers, “Would it help?” The phrase becomes the refrain of the movie, and I was taken by its relevance to most, if not all, situations calling for response. I now have it laminated and on my desk, and I ask myself this question as I think about how I respond to anything coming my way. “Would it help?”
I thought about this phrase recently when the hard edges of the world sharpened yet again in the advent of events in Charlottesville and the march on that venerable city for white supremacy, for anti-Semitism, for hate. If, as the late Rev. Peter Gomes said, “Schools are in the business of goodness,” then speaking out, loudly and clearly, against hate would certainly help. This is not a partisan claim, but a moral one…one that appeals to our shared values as human beings. Poet Tom Andrews writes, “There are times when the sound the world makes is a little word/ Something like ‘help,’ or ‘yes.’” This is one of those times, and good schools across our nation will answer the call for “help” with a clear and strong “yes” in standing against hatred. So, I ask myself, would it help to say we stand for goodness and inclusivity? Absolutely.
I recently received an email from Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, who was Head of School for Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School from 1969-1989 (“challenging years!” she writes). Her mother went to Spence, and she wrote to tell me of something Miss Spence would repeatedly say to her mother and her classmates: “The doors of the Miss Spence School open out as well as in.” She thought it would be good to share this with me now, and I’m glad she did. We are part of the larger world, and our wonderful and collective privilege of a superb education is also a responsibility. We have been at this for a long time. Our mission, our motto, our hours together remind us of our work for the good, of our charge to speak up unequivocally against hate. Would it help to remember that? Yes.
What wouldn’t help, however, is to meet hate with more anger. I like how poet Jane Kenyon describes anger as “that inner arsonist,” acknowledging that meeting hate with hate, violence with violence just makes for more of each, and at personal peril. What you do is as significant as what you feel, and how you respond can both engender or damage. I like what Mr. Rogers says about what to do when there is something terrible in the world. He tells us to “look for the helpers” and do what they do. Be like them. This is the point: when your actions will genuinely serve others and not your own understandable but dangerous anger, then you know it would help.
And what also helps is to keep looking with our eyes and our hearts. My grandson went to a new school as a third-grader this year. The end of this story is good (he’s doing just fine and is surrounded by many friends) but his first day was hard. The school has a promising idea to promote goodness: a buddy bench. If you need a friend or if you are lonely or lost, you go sit on the buddy bench, and someone comes and…becomes your buddy. Someone lifts you up. At his very first recess, Calvin went to the buddy bench, and, well…no one came to collect him. I am completely convinced that his fellow third-graders didn’t strategize to leave him out. They just didn’t see him. They were just not watching.
And, so here’s the thing. There are simple ways to further good: turn to helpers, check out the buddy bench, don’t let anger take control and remember to care for all of our neighbors in and out of the Red Doors. Would it help? Yes.