The concept is part of a prayer students at Saint Dennis Catholic School know by heart, asking God to forgive them as they forgive others. But for so many of us, forgiveness is easier said than done.
Principal Matt Beisser saw an unnerving pattern in the people attacking other schools around the country. He said a number of them seemed to be holding on to something that no one ever thought to ask about or dared to tackle.
“If you can't let go and dwell on it, that's where the big problems come,” Beisser said.
Five years ago, Dr. Robert Enright approached Beisser’s staff. Enright pitched a curriculum that emphasized forgiveness in the classroom. Ever since then, Beisser said the concept has become it’s own lesson.
“It's just a mindset now, it's just something that's intertwined in everything, that we're teaching kids how to move on from things, teaching them to treat each other with respect,” Beisser said.
Enright, a University of Wisconsin researcher, has made a living studying the science of forgiveness. His research began with prisoners. Enright said many of those who were incarcerated for wrongdoing had never been asked about people who wronged them in the past.
“If we keep taking an eye for an eye, eventually the world will be blind,” Enright said, quoting Ghandi.
Enright moved the concept and his research to schools all over the world. His work took him to juvenile prisons in Korea, schools in Belfast, Ireland, and communities in Africa. Enright found that forgiveness translates in all languages and for all ages.
“The bedrock idea -- can I offer goodness who have not been good to me, and I can become more settled in my own heart? -- doesn't matter what the age is,” Enright said.
Enright also proved forgiveness could help heal a broken heart.
“It's the only study on the planet that shows when a person forgives who has a heart compromise, that this can affect a major organ of the body,” Enright said.
With the help of the International Forgiveness Institute based in Madison, Enright developed a curriculum focused on forgiveness. He said some schools have been hesitant to implement the guidelines, perhaps because it would require more time or extra training that teachers and staff can’t sacrifice in today’s school environment. However, Enright said without changing the way we look at situations and discipline them in schools, we will keep seeing issues like bullying and mass violence.
“They're trying to constrain behavior. I'm trying to heal the heart,” Enright said. “And if we can heal the heart, I think we'll be able to not just constrain behavior, but get more cooperation.”
The curriculum helps teachers at all grade levels. There is another guide for parents, and more recently, Enright created a curriculum to specifically target bullying in schools.
“If we can help them see that they are wounded, they will be less intent on wounding others,” Enright said.
Back at Saint Dennis, Beisser said there’s no downside to implementing the curriculum.
Beisser and his staff have made a commitment to being proactive against bullying, including posters in the hallways to remind students to “be a buddy.”
“You have a bullying problem when you say you don't have a bullying problem,” Beisser said.
“If we don't take this seriously, there will be more mayhem, and I don't want more mayhem in the schools,” Enright said.