I had a couple of appointments and few other things to get done on Monday before my work schedule would give me that long break for the Christmas holiday. It never occurred to me that before the day was over I would be buying breakfast, lunch or dinner for maybe 100 people.
When I’m between consults in the middle of my day I like to read records and prepare assignments at the closest Panera Bread. Panera is always buzzing with activity; quick-talking finance people in crisp suits trying to convince clients to buy some new investment product, book groups of white-haired old ladies chattering away, college students with their laptops out, books open and phones rumbling across the table, people giving job interviews, parents treating their children to a quick pastry before school.
There are a few Paneras along my route through RI and South Eastern MA that give me easy access to several nearby assignments. On Monday my first stop was in East Greenwich, RI and at 8:30 it was already crowded, so I squeezed myself behind a single table between some kind of women’s reunion on my right—everyone wearing sweaters and bearing gifts, and a little girl with her grandmother on my left. I had three records to read, but instead I found myself listening to the grandmother and the girl.
The little girl might have been seven, already off from school for her Christmas vacation. The grandmother was a refined looking old lady and she had a lot to say about all that they had to accomplish with the day in front of them, but in between listing out the itinerary she kept looking up and commenting on how the girl should blow her nose (“But I don’t have to grandma”), or maybe she wants to fix that ribbon in her hair (“You’re bound to lose that if you don’t fix it”). “I always wear it that way and I never lose it,” the little girl said. “Well, we’re leaving soon so tie your shoes.” The girl bent down and gave the task her full concentration. “No, no, that’s not how you do it,” said the grandma, a voice corroded with habitual disapproval. “I don’t know how you can ever get them tied that way.” The girl let the laces drop, looked up at her grandmother and smiled warmly as she asked, “Can you show me grandma?”
Just then the grandmother melted and her voice softened. “Oh sweetie, don’t listen to me. You’re doing it just fine.” She hesitated for a moment and then added, “Your mother figured out her own way to tie when she was a little girl. She’s left handed, you know. I could never figure out the way she did it but it worked just fine for her. And you’re doing just fine with your way.”
The girl finished tying her own shoes in her own way while the grandmother began gathering her things and cleaning up the dishes and the wrappers from the table. “Let’s think of something nice we can buy for your mother today, she said. “We’ll surprise her, won’t that be fun?” She put her hands on the little girl’s shoulders and smiled into her eyes and said, “You and I are going to have an adventure today.” She smoothed the coat on the little girl’s shoulders and continued, “This is such a treat for me, spending the whole day with you. Who knows what we’ll do, but whatever it is, it will be an adventure for us both.” As they walked out the little girl reached for the grandmother’s hand and the grandmother folded hers around it.
A smile from this little girl, along with a generous supply of unending patience and her unrelenting warm and welcoming manner finally hit the heart of this grandmother and caused an oxytocin rush followed by the associated neurochemical cocktail that completely shifted the grandmother’s view of the girl sitting right in front of her, and with that she had a complete shift in her thinking of what they were going to do with their day. The day in front of her transformed from a list of things to accomplish to an opportunity to have an adventure with her granddaughter. She finally saw the little girl in front of her and she was charmed, where just moments earlier she had been annoyed and irritated by what she saw. How many lives are affected, how many days are altered, how many perceptions are shifted, I began thinking, by a single act of kindness, a sincere smile, an enduring expression of patience?
I still had three records to read, but already I knew what I was going to do. I couldn’t wait to get through all the records so I only finished one of them, then I bought two $100.00 Panera gift cards and handed them to the manager. I told him, “As soon as I leave I want you to put one of these at each register and then I want your cashiers to buy breakfast on me for everyone who comes in, until both cards are gone. Have the women at the register tell the customers that some guy wanted them to be treated to something nice today.”
The manager was really pleased to be able to provide $200.00 of free breakfast to his customers and I imagine the women at the registers were pleased to give customers the news that their breakfasts were free, but I didn’t stick around for that because I still had more records to read and now I needed to move to another Panera.
I arrived at the next Panera just before the lunch rush, bought a cup of coffee, and devoted the following two hours to a complete review of two records, kindergarten twin boys, both autistic and neither one with any verbal language. At the conclusion of the Christmas break we would have to figure out how to help these two youngsters and their family. On my way out of the restaurant (on to my next appointment) I bought two more $100.00 gift cards and gave the same set of instructions to the manager.
Finally, 4:00 pm, with my last consult of the day finished, my Christmas vacation had finally begun. I had a few last minute gifts to get so I headed to the Wakefiled Mall where I planned to buy one large box of gourmet chocolates for my family to replace all the small boxes we had already consumed and given away to holiday visitors. Next to the chocolate shop there’s a Panera and that is where I stopped on my way out of the mall. By now dinnertime was about to arrive. There was only one register open and the woman running it was familiar to me. She had been a teaching assistant years ago when she and I worked together on a program for young autistic children. The work had been arduous, fraught with tremendous obstacles, but the results had been amazing, and as we recognized each other now, it was as if we were both remembering fondly what we had been able to do while working on the same team.
I bought the gift card as I had planned, this time just one for $200.00, and I gave it to this woman to use on the people coming in for dinner. Briefly we were on the same team again, trying to do some good.
So my day ended with that last Panera stop. I don’t know if what I did on Monday had any effect at all. Maybe one person decided not to honk the horn at the person who pulled out without looking and maybe that other driver gave a wave of gratitude back and told the child in the car with them how important it is to be kind, generous, and patient with each other, and maybe that child. . .well, who knows. I never really stopped to think about whether I was wasting my money or doing some good. Maybe that was why I never stayed around after making the donations. Maybe I didn’t want to know.
I thought about it this way. I could have made a significant donation myself to a food bank or a thrift store or the Salvation Army kettle and helped a few dozen people who were in need of my donation, or I could inspire many others, people who really didn’t need my donation, and these people might inspire others toward kindness and generosity throughout their day, and the subsequent donations, the resulting acts of kindness could be more far-reaching than my one gift, like the growing ring of one ripple across the surface of a pond. Of course, I’ll never know.
When I read the letter from my children on Christmas morning I thought about my Monday again (one of you even wrote about how you appreciated the many lessons on the value of kindness). So many years ago when my children were first born, and every year since that time, I’ve tried to make the most significant difference I could in the lives of these three young people, and today, with that letter as evidence, these three people have indeed become ripples across the surface of the pond.