There are two wolves living inside of you in a constant struggle for dominance.
At least, that’s according to a popular anecdote, often attributed to Lenape or Cherokee lore. In the story, there are two wolves within each person, foils that embody positive and negative traits. The one who wins is the one you feed more.
This is a story Dr. Ferial Pearson, founder of the Secret Kindness Agents and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, shares in her presentations about the movement.
That story was on her mind the night before she presented at Mullen Public Schools. She had made the five-hour drive alone, and a few Facebook posts a local had written about her were generating conversation.
Posts by Mullen resident Deb Cox, which were screenshotted and shared as images, spawned hundreds of comments and numerous shares. In one post she shared details about the presentation and pointed out that Pearson was “a professed Muslim.” The other post said Pearson’s presentation seems innocent but that her causes also support LGBTQ rights.
Some agreed with Cox and others defended Pearson. And Mullen parent Steve Dent referenced Chris Kyle on one of the posts, the man who inspired the film “American Sniper,” encouraging readers to “just be a cowboy” like him.
Pearson read each of the comments, the light from her phone screen illuminating her face as she sat alone in her hotel room. She didn’t get any sleep that night. She didn’t feel safe.
She weighed her options and considered recent hate crimes against Muslims and immigrants — shootings in Texas, California and New Zealand.
“We have this myth in society that there are good people and bad people,” she said a week later in a phone interview. “You hear that all the time when in fact that’s not true — everyone’s capable of good and everyone’s capable of bad.
“You can’t control what others do, but you can control what you do and your reaction. I was thinking about that when I was figuring out, should I stay or not?”
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Secret Kindness Agents, and Pearson’s presentations about it, had never generated controversy until the Mullen Public Schools presentation, she said.
It started in January 2013 with a class of juniors at Ralston High School, where she was teaching at the time. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, had happened the previous month, in December 2012, and she needed something to bring happiness back into her and her students’ lives.
The program is relatively simple: Participants choose an “agent name,” or pseudonym, and conduct a variety of kindness acts. Most are simple, free and quick — like writing a thank you note for someone and leaving it on their desk. Afterward, the agents reflect on how the act made them feel in a journal.
It might seem small, but it had a large impact, she said.
“In my students I saw their confidence go up, they became happier, felt like they were more in control of their lives,” she said. “I became happier, too. I got my faith in humanity back — I was in a dark place after Sandy Hook.”
And the idea has caught on. It’s now in more than 400 schools, catching on in rural, urban and home schools in areas as far-reaching as Ontario and Spain.
It’s also in dozens of schools across Nebraska, including at Norfolk Middle School, where counselor Sarah Klinetobe said it’s helping the students and making a positive impact in the school. It started in January 2018 and now has hundreds of agents.
“They learn how the small things make a difference in someone’s life; they’re conscious about the acts they’re doing, which makes it really neat,” she said in a Daily News interview last fall. “They can see the value behind it in all the small little things they do.”
Pearson presents about the program at schools and conferences across the nation, and Mullen Superintendent Chris Kuncl learned about it last spring when a few of his teachers saw a presentation at a conference.
“Our business manager and high school secretary went to an administrative professionals’ workshop, they saw Ferial speak and just kind of fell in love with the message and what it means,” he said. “ … They came back and said how awesome she was, dynamic speaker, funny; they go, ‘We really think the kids would enjoy it.’ ”
After watching a YouTube video of a TEDxOmaha presentation Pearson gave on Secret Kindness Agents, Kuncl agreed that it could be a great way to kick off the academic year on a positive note for the school of about 160 students.
And he was right: The students loved Pearson and her presentation, and they immediately started doing acts of kindness, he said. But first, there was a “negative cloud” caused by a local who wrote a “very xenophobic — pretty much just blatant prejudice is what it was — rant on Facebook,” Kuncl said, which was then fed by many users who didn’t live in the area.
“It really put a negative light on our community.”
Before Pearson’s presentation in Mullen on Aug. 20, Cox published two Facebook posts about her presentations. In the flurry of comments the posts caused, Pearson said the comment about Chris Kyle was particularly chilling.
“For anyone who has heard of Chris Kyle, this comment on the last screenshot is a terrifying suggestion; it implies that this parent show up and do what Chris Kyle bragged about doing — killing innocent Muslims,” Pearson wrote in a blog post published on Medium.com.
She said the comment made her throw up several times and rethink whether she wanted to present. But she received support from Kuncl, who emailed her at 4:30 a.m. and said he was “appalled and mortified” by the posts.
“This is not the Mullen I feel is my home,” he wrote. “Normally, people are kind and do not spew hatred. Unfortunately, we have some that don’t understand the kindness movement and probably never will understand.”
These comments caused Kuncl to request the sheriff’s presence at the assembly and keep Pearson surrounded by teachers. Cox did attend the presentation, but administrators kept Pearson away from her.
Cox’s posts caused one parent to keep their student at home, which Kuncl said was because they were “scared of a Muslim speaking to them.”
The presentation itself went as planned, and Cox said there were no references to Islam or LGBTQ rights. A self-described “born-again Christian,” Cox said her main concern was the influence a Muslim woman would have on students in a school presentation.
“I was concerned about the influence if they checked her background, what the kids would discover,” she said in a phone interview.
Cox said she didn’t realize how “out of hand” the online posts would get, and she also received numerous messages she didn’t respond to that she called “unsavory.”
“I will say her supporters — I wonder if this is a bunch of fluff because I have gotten nothing but messages that I could not repeat to anyone,” she said. “It has been unbelievable.”
In response to Cox’s doubts about the sincerity of the Secret Kindness Agents program, Kuncl said to look to its effects. It’s “struck a chord” with Mullen students.
Since the presentation, about 30 students in two separate groups have started their own groups in Mullen. Numerous acts have already been carried out in the school, like covering the door to the kitchen in appreciative, colorful post-it notes for cafeteria workers.
“After the reaction of the kids, I think it speaks for itself. Our kids took to it right away, they’re doing it, I think they’ll continue to do it,” he said. “Everyone has their opinions, but what (Pearson’s) brought across the world, it’s priceless to our kids and the youth and the future.
“You have to learn to be kind, not only be tolerant but accept others’ beliefs. That’s one thing we need to teach our kids: that you’re not always going to agree.”
Reactions and reflections
It was partially because of students’ reactions to the Facebook posts that Pearson decided to go through with her presentation, Kuncl said.
“I had students calling me the night before, texting me, ‘Have you seen this rant? This is just awful,’ ” he said. “They were all concerned about making sure that she felt welcome. They wanted her to present.”
Cox, in reflecting on the incident, said she hoped her words and actions didn’t put Christianity in a bad light.
“It’s a hard line to walk. Between what you know is right and also showing love to other people,” she said. “And so maybe I could have done that differently, to show love to (Pearson) in a different way.”
Pearson said she’s faced bigotry before, but being physically isolated made this situation different. She’s not going to drive to presentations alone anymore.
While social media can be inflammatory and play a role in exacerbating divisive issues, it also may be used to bring people together, she said.
“You can hear people from different perspectives if you’re open. These folks are in their own bubble and have never met a Muslim before. They were shocked. I’m not shocked because I’ve experienced this before. It’s not new to me.”
Pearson also agreed with Kuncl that the Mullen students’ inclusive and open example should be followed.
“I think the whole thing happened because I listened to children. … I think we need to listen to children more,” she said. “I think we need to broaden our perspectives and make friends with people who aren’t like us.”