Empathy and Courage: Two Hallmarks of Great Learners and Teachers

May 11

Empathy and Courage: Two Hallmarks of Great Learners and Teachers

On a frigid November night in 2012, a police officer in New York City was on patrol at Seventh Avenue near 44th Street when he came across a homeless man sitting barefoot on the sidewalk.  The officer, who was wearing combat boots and two pairs of wool winter socks, described how the biting New England air was penetrating his layers.  He could only imagine how the barefoot, homeless man felt. So, the officer decided to do something about it.  He walked down to a shoe store on 42nd Street, bought a pair of insulated winter boots and thermal socks for $75, then returned to the man, knelt down, and helped put the footwear on him.  A tourist realized what was happening, snapped a picture of the kneeling officer, and posted the image on Facebook. It went viral with nearly two million views in a few weeks’ time.  The officer was widely honored and later promoted—an example of empathy in a profession so frequently misunderstood and all too often underappreciated.1 But then, as is so often the case in life, this seemingly simple act of compassion began to draw criticism.  Investigative journalists caught up with the homeless man a few days later.2 They learned his name (Hillman), and found out that he was still barefoot.  The boots were nowhere to be seen. When asked why he was not wearing the boots, Hillman responded “Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money. I could lose my life if I wore those boots.”3  Further investigation into Hillman’s background revealed that he apparently had an apartment in the Bronx paid for by social security.  Soon other news organizations joined the growing debate.  By now, the barefoot Hillman was aware that his story had somehow become the focus of national attention.  His feelings, published in the New York Times, were boiled down to this: “I appreciate what the officer did, don’t get me wrong, and I wish there were more people like him in the world,” he said, “[but] I was put on YouTube. I was put on everything without permission. What do I get? I want a piece of the pie.”4 A New York City police officer was caught in...

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