A Kinder, Gentler World

Is compassion something we only have so much of? Or can we be trained to love more people more of the time? Jennifer Campbell reports.

Illustrations by Julia Rothman

The moment is seared in Tom Veenstra’s memory. His teenage students—a combined Grade 7 and 8 class at Market Lane Public School in Toronto—are gathered around a large green blanket. The students are singing a welcome song to a fourmonth-old baby who, with his parents, will visit the class over the coming year.

Veenstra and his students are participating in a program called Roots of Empathy, which teaches school-age children how to identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The baby’s visits help the students learn about compassion.

From the minute his mother brought him into the classroom, the infant zeroed in on a shy boy who rarely takes part in class. “As the mom carried him around the circle,” Veenstra remembers, “the baby was turning and craning his neck to make eye contact with that student.

“It was a beautiful moment. There was gentle laughter, and everyone was aware of how the baby was drawn to him. We talked about the fact that we have no idea why, on that day, the baby was attracted to him. But you could just tell that it made him feel…