Substitute teachers face intolerance nearly every day. A three-week 3rd-grade assignment presented me with a unique challenge. The classroom environment was hostile toward one boy who had transferred from a neighboring district. By January, he hadn't been accepted by the class and had become an angry little boy who tested the limits. I was unprepared for student response to Bobby's misbehavior. By the end of my first day, it was clear that Bobby was the class scapegoat. The slightest infraction on Bobby's part sent the class into verbal attacks. The students' tone was condescending and cruel.
At the start of the second week, I read Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, in which a dull, lonely man receives a box of chocolates in the mail with a note that reads, "Somebody loves you." Mr. Hatch comes out of his self-imposed shell to make friends with neighbors, coworkers, and local merchants, thinking he has a secret admirer. He becomes the life of the party with his new-found confidence. Eventually, the mail carrier explains there has been a terrible mistake – he delivered the chocolates to the wrong address. Devastated, Mr. Hatch returns to his former depressed and lonely state. In the end, his new friends throw him a party with a huge banner that reads "Everybody Loves Mr. Hatch."
After reading the story, we discussed how it feels to have a secret admirer and how it feels to be a secret admirer. The kids agreed they would like to be a secret admirer to a classmate. I randomly passed out names. After checking that no one got their own name, I explained a few ground rules. First, you couldn't tell anyone whose name you picked – not even your best friend. Second, you didn't have to buy things for that person, but you could leave nice notes or do nice things for them without them knowing it was you. Third, you could try to trick your person by being especially nice to other people, too. And finally, we would reveal ourselves on Friday.
I saw an immediate change in the classroom climate. Kids became kind and polite. They complimented each other on their schoolwork and ideas. Throughout the week I reminded kids to do something for their secret friend. In our Friday morning Community Circle only a handful of students guessed their admirer. Then we went around the circle revealing who our secret friend was. Although Bobby was the biggest beneficiary of this exercise in kindness, all students learned a lesson in tolerance.