A big-hearted woman who never gave up on her childhood dreams of reaching out to children in need
Else Arnold (1973 –)
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The son of an industrial arts teacher and a nurse, Brian was born on Long Island and came to the Bruderhof as an eight-year-old with his parents and four siblings. A musician and teacher who has taught in the community’s elementary schools for more than twenty years, mostly in southwestern Pennsylvania, he has naturally spent hours observing children. In recent years he has given a lot of thought to the harmful influences of materialism and the way they can be overcome. To Brian, it’s a vital aspect of education:
Sharing always comes out of a culture of sharing. And this culture is first instilled in us by our parents. I remember two incidents from my childhood as clear as day: I was seven, and we were still living on Long Island. A neighbor knocked on the door, looking for food, and there was ground meat and steak in our freezer, and my father gave him the hamburger. The neighbor was grateful, but as soon as he was gone, my mother asked my father, “Why didn’t you give him the steak?” That made a deep impression on me.
Most children have an innate sense of justice and fairness, of whether things are balanced or right. This can simply be nurtured and encouraged.
The other incident: my father had taken us kids to a camp for migrant workers who were picking apples in the area. We brought them Dunkin’ Donuts. As we passed them around, we noticed that nobody was eating. Dad asked, “Is something wrong?” They said, “Oh no. We’re just waiting until everyone has one before we begin.” They cared about each other.
Brian also tries to teach generosity and selflessness in a more focused way, right in the classroom, mostly through literature:
There’s Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, there’s Dr. Seuss, and there are longer works like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, where the children can see the distinct change in Scrooge’s life once he stops thinking about himself.
I have found that the more you give children materially, the less grateful they are, and that the less you give them, the more likely they are to be happy anyway – happy with less.
Brian notes that most children have “an innate sense of justice and fairness, of whether things are balanced or right” – and that this can simply be nurtured and encouraged.
For years, I’ve run a weekly session where I choose five or six different current events, and we discuss them. And whenever there is something relating to poverty or war, or refugees, or civil rights, the reaction of the children is the same. They see the difference between rich and poor and say, “That’s so unfair.” They can understand world politics at that basic level, and they’ll respond from their hearts.
Several years ago, one of my fourth graders won a $100 gift certificate in an art contest. That week we talked about a devastating earthquake that had just happened in Nepal, and how the children there must be suffering. The girl who won the $100 suggested we use it to buy supplies for a school in Nepal, and that’s what we did.
Still, even among children, human nature is what it is. Yes, there are moments when kids will spontaneously give to others. But that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s mostly not the case. So as educators, as parents, it is our duty to help them to put others first. This is vital if our children are going to grow up to become productive members of society. And that will never happen as long as they are guided by selfishness. Selfishness is a disease!
But a lot can be accomplished by ensuring that children are given the time and space to grow up in a world not needlessly cluttered with things:
I have found that the more you give children materially, the less grateful they are, and that the less you give them, the more likely they are to be happy anyway – happy with less. When I was student-teaching at a non-Bruderhof school, I once had a class that was nothing short of spoiled: they knew every restaurant in town, they belonged to every club in the neighborhood, they were on all the teams; but the first thing they’d ask when they got to my classroom – I was running an after-school program – was, “Brian, can we play outdoors?” And they were truly happy doing that.
Obviously you have to supervise them, but if you let them, kids will spend hours just playing: building stick houses and dams, playing fort, finding nests or watching birds. And the experience of losing themselves in outdoor play will give them something no amount of toys or gadgets or things can compete with.
Everyone wants the best for their kids, but often the best means giving them less materially, and rather giving them more of your time and attention. What children need most – a time and a place to play, and to be at peace with themselves, their family, and their friends – can’t be bought. That’s what we try to give them at our schools on the Bruderhof: memories that last, and – I hope – a lifelong habit of generosity.
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With photography by British photojournalist Danny Burrows, this 300-page hardcover book celebrates what is possible when people take a leap of faith. It will inspire anyone working to build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable future.
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