Many of the inscriptions in my junior high and high school yearbooks begin with the insipid “To a nice girl who. . ..” The phrase surprised me at the time (because I really wasn’t all that nice at 14) and at the same time disappointed me, it seemed such a banal, unknowing assessment. In hindsight it’s clear my classmates didn’t know what to say and simply repeated the messages they’d seen in friends’ or older siblings’ yearbooks over the years. “Nice” connoted boring, bland, unexceptional, sometimes bookish, and not much fun. It was never a compliment in the adolescent identity stakes.
I heard the term reclaimed this week, though, in a very powerful way. [Aung San Suu Kyi,] the Nobel Prize-winning Burmese dissident, returned to her alma mater Oxford University for the first time in 24 years to accept the honorary degree awarded her almost two decades ago. In a rare departure from Oxford tradition, she was invited to speak to the ceremonial congregation and she talked about the strength she derived from her years at Oxford while separated from her home and family under house arrest in Burma for 19 years. Then she described the students she had met at her old college the day before, “They are nice.” At first it seemed an odd, if not jarring choice of words. Until she gave them gravitas: “We were nice,” she said reminiscing about herself and her friends when they were in school. “Like today’s students, we were **given the opportunity to be nice**.”
Suddenly “nice” is a word rich in privilege and potential, a powerful and importantly hope-filled state of being, a description of respectful engagement with what Aung San Suu Kyi called, “all that is best in human civilization.” Suddenly “nice” is aspirational and part of our best selves, and it demands -- if not the sacrificial leadership and commitment to a larger cause that this 66 year-old woman chose -- to be genuinely shared in relationships, one to another, and with our deeply troubled world.
Nice is not a matter of manners; it is an opportunity to engage. What a stunning lesson from an extraordinary woman.
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