I want to tell you two stories about kindness and love.

The first story is about how Mark Andre saved my Christmas.

Years ago, the tree my kids chose at Thornridge Farms Nursery in Fairfield turned out to be more than I had expected. Money was tight, and I mixed up which areas of trees were within our budget. I searched frantically for spare coins in my car, my face red with embarrassment. Mark, the owner, smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it. Merry Christmas.” My eyes welled with tears, we thanked him, and left with the excitement that can only come from choosing a tree grown a few miles from our home.

Mark and I disagree about issues politically, but our disagreements have not prevented us from being good neighbors. Mark’s kindness exemplified a spirit of charity that we’ve found to be quite typical of Maine.

The second story is about love.

My husband became an American citizen last Friday. The Oath of Allegiance ceremony took place at the Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton. My children and I were escorted by a student to a section for family and friends. My husband was seated in an area for “almost” citizens.

A woman (not from the school) asked a man sitting next to me if he needed his Oath of Allegiance and American flag. He indicated he was a spectator. Why did she ask him and not me? The only discernible difference: he had dark skin. My boys muttered under their breaths, signifying they understood what had transpired, and my heart sank. Quietly, I told them we still have work to do in this country.

But Bonny Eagle Middle School proved it’s doing its part to embrace diversity. It reminded us of the foundation of America. Being an American doesn’t mean abandoning one’s heritage or differences; rather, it means embracing the whole new package. The ceremony they crafted for the oath demonstrated a desire to not only recognize our differences but to embrace and love them. Their select choir and band played traditional patriotic music, spirituals, and even a song from the musical “Hamilton.” The school crafted a masterful video highlighting faculty and staff immigrant stories, from the 1735 to a recent permanent resident. Each of the 26 candidates and families felt like their differences were gifts to their new country to be treasured, not forgotten.

While we watched the video, Bonny Eagle students silently entered the gymnasium. I would have missed it had I not caught a reflection of their silhouettes in a darkened window. My husband, seated with the candidates, had no clue of their arrival. The candidates rose, took the Oath of Allegiance, and the gymnasium erupted in cheers. My husband turned around in surprise and, along with the other new Americans, was awe-struck. My heart swelled with love for my family and country.

The days following Election Day are filled with both excitement and disappointment. For every person celebrating victory, someone struggles with defeat. We now must choose how we react to the outcome. We can dig the divide deeper, or we can try to be good neighbors.

We have many good neighbors here in Waterville. Mark Andre was a good neighbor to me. I didn’t forget it, and I brought a little extra cash when I bought a tree the following year. We have two cherished friends who are Colby graduates. They made Waterville their forever home, raised their boys here, and were the very first to bring us a hot meal when my son was hospitalized.

I know many alumni and current students who are integral in our community, volunteering with local groups, frequenting local businesses, working within Waterville, and worshiping together in our communities of faith. To me, they are no less “Watervillians” than my husband is American.

The Bonny Eagle staff and students have something to teach all of us. The American dream lifts all of us up. It begs us to make a more perfect union. The fact that we still struggle with how to do this doesn’t make us enemies — it makes us human.

I know I’m not a shining example of what is always right. I know I’ll continue to make mistakes. Can’t we agree that we all want the same things? We want health, happiness, love and freedom. We share a common ground, inherited from other immigrants and Native Americans. Each of us must strive to find ways to work together to achieve goals for the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” We have come out of those huddled masses, and we still have our struggles and our dreams.

I think kindness and love are good places to start. I promise I’ll try harder to work on this. Will you?

Hilary Koch lives in Waterville.

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