A small private school in Seattle offered a kindness class this fall, part of a larger movement that started more than a decade ago. Offered online, the class had 250 people — the most ever — who lived as far away as Poland.

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If you recently found a shiny gold dollar coin in downtown Bellevue, thank the kindness class. Ditto if you stumbled upon a piece of glass art in Pioneer Square, or a lottery ticket taped to a bus shelter with a note saying, “This may be your lucky day.”

Since mid-September, the 250 people in Puget Sound Community School’s online course learned about kindness by practicing it.

Along the way, they took emotional risks, repaired relationships, improved their outlook on the world, and realized that kindness is contagious.

Signing up for the class “just felt like the right thing to do in order to step outside of myself and see the world as a helpful, kind place, as opposed to a frightening place,” said Barbara Kyllingstad, of Seattle, who enrolled as a way to combat the isolation she’s felt since she got laid off from Washington Mutual this year.

“I feel a lot more peaceful and positive about the world.”

The phrase “random acts of kindness” first showed up at least a decade ago, a play on the expression “random acts of violence.” Since then, books, movies and even national organizations have sprung up to keep the trend going.

Puget Sound Community School’s kindness class — now in its 15th year — is a homegrown example that this year drew a record number of students. A few were teenagers who attend the small, private school near the Chinatown International District, which serves grades six through 12, but many were friends and friends of friends who live as far away as Poland.

Class instructor Andy Smallman, co-founder of the school, calls it a “positive virus.”

Smallman offered his first kindness class just to the teens at his school, where creating a nurturing environment is central to the educational philosophy. It was so successful he offered the second class online, inviting anyone, anywhere, of any age, to sign up.

Watching ‘ripples’

“It was the idea of throwing a little pebble into a pond and seeing how far the ripples would go,” he said.

The first assignment: Do something kind for yourself. Like airplane passengers instructed to put on their own oxygen masks first in an emergency, we all need to tend to ourselves before we can care for others, Smallman says.

The second assignment: Do something kind for someone you love.

Then for a neighbor. Then for a stranger.

Smallman also stretches the definition of kindness. Assignment No. 10, for example, was to do something useful.

Class members wrote anonymous compliments to co-workers, left homegrown pears out for passers-by, cleaned street storm drains, picked up trash and slipped a $20 bill inside the next empty cup that a barista would pick up.

A woman who lives in Astoria, Ore., bought a $15 Fred Meyer gift card and left it on the windshield for a young mother who had just entered a nearby unemployment/welfare office.

Another kindness student, after running a half-marathon, gave her participation medal to the 76-year-old man who finished last, because race organizers by then had run out of medals.

Coffee for officers

Shortly after the killing of the four Lakewood police officers, Chris Falskow, a 48-year-old real-estate agent and a board member at Smallman’s school, went to a Starbucks near his office where officers from Seattle’s Harbor Patrol often go, and paid in advance for their next order.

Falskow says he was inspired by an Edmonds man who also bought coffee for police officers — evidence, he says, that one kind act often begets another.

“If more people realize what they do with their acts of kindness … we will live in a better place,” he said.

Victoria Clearwater, who has a child at the school, said she was struck by how much these small acts of kindness enrich her own life.

“When a kinder option is chosen, it truly radiates out and comes back to you.”

Smallman asked class members to share reports of their deeds on the class homepage, and to reflect on their feelings about what they’ve done. But since it was an informal class, they weren’t compelled to do so. There were no grades or credit, although students at the school could apply the activities to some requirements there.

Some participants chose not to write about what they’ve done because they felt that would be self-serving. In past classes, Smallman says, some have made a strong case that every kind act is ultimately selfish. And there’s probably some truth to that, he said, but he personally doesn’t care.

To him, it’s about forging ties among people. “If I’m doing something nice for you, of course I’m doing something nice for me because we’re connected,” he said.

Some people also question whether small kindnesses add up to much. Smallman says he tells students that they just don’t know, that what might seem insignificant on the surface may actually have a large impact.

He recounted a friend’s story about a boy who, after a storm, was throwing starfish back into the sea. An old man asked whether helping just a few of them mattered.

The boy threw another into the water and said, “Makes a difference to that one.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

To see all the assignments and reports from the Kindness Class, see: http://onlinekindnessclass.wordpress.com/