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The most important lesson in my life was taught to me by my grandfather. This may sound strange, given I have been an educator for 20 years, but as I sat and watched my 10th commencement at Sonoma State University recently, this lesson came back to me. I just forget it sometimes.

My grandfather was a simple man who ran a small store in rural Maine. He paid his taxes when they were due and worked so many hours each day that my grandmother had to bring his dinner to him at the store every night. He was everything that America asks its citizens to be. Most of all, though, he was kind to everyone. Whether he knew them or not.

When I was 19, I was in the hospital recovering from throat surgery, and I was having a terrible reaction to the anesthesia when the nurse came in. She spent hours with me while I ranted and raved. I didn’t understand that I was paranoid. I thought she was trying to kill me. And yet she just sat with me. When I asked her the next day why she had been so kind to me, she had a very simple answer. “I know your grandfather,” she said. “He was the only person in town who gave me credit after my divorce. I bought a couple of nails every month on credit and would pay it off. Then he would report it to the banks. He let me open a credit account with him even though he didn’t know me. Without him, I never would have bought my house.”

My grandfather was kind to everybody. Not just his family. Not just the people who came into his store. Not just the members of his small community in Bangor, Maine. If my grandfather had anything, it was shared with anyone who needed it. He never asked for prizes or accolades in return. He just did it.

In this global world, our communities are expanding. They no longer are saddled with the things that divided us in the past. I have seen places that my grandfather could only dream of. I spent two years traveling in the American West and have taken three groups of students to Europe. I’ve been to Israel and Singapore. I spent nearly a year in Indonesia. It was there that I met my fiancée in Pecatu, Bali, a small village that most Americans couldn’t find on a map. She is from Citeureup, Java, a small village that I couldn’t find on a map. She is Muslim, as are most people from Indonesia. And we fell in love.

When my fiancée told her father that she wanted to marry me, he said no. He wasn’t going to have his daughter taken away to America by some “bule,” the derogatory Indonesian term for white people. When I heard this, I was horrified. I was confused. Most of all I was scared to meet him. My new potential father-in-law was judging me despite never having met me. He was judging me based only on what he had seen on television.

My fiancée is much smarter than both of us, so she invited me to come to her home and village. It was there that I saw her father playing with his grandson, just as my grandfather had played with me. It made me remember my own grandfather and what he taught me. I needed to be kind. So I ate with his family. I promised to be kind to his daughter. I promised to bring his grandchildren to visit him. I let everyone in the village take my picture, since they had never seen anyone so big and so white in person and wanted to document it. I laughed with his family and friends. I called him “bapak” (Indonesian for father). I gave him the kindness that my grandfather gave to everyone he met.

When it was time to leave, I had his blessing to marry his daughter. It didn’t matter anymore that I was a bule. It didn’t matter that I was American. It didn’t even matter that I was raised in a Jewish family. I had shown him the kindness that my grandfather showed everyone he met. Last month, as I looked out over the graduating class of 2018, I heard Dean John Wingard give them the same advice that my grandfather gave me. He told the students to be kind. I hope my students learn their lesson from Dean Wingard better than me.

Eric Williams is chairman of the criminology and criminal justice studies department at Sonoma State University. He has lived in the Santa Rosa area for 10 years.

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