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I’m not usually a big fan of naming something with the express purpose of shortening it into a supposedly meaningful, yet inevitably pithy-sounding, acronym.

The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, for example, or Madison’s own CHEW (Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin).

So I initially turned a jaundiced eye toward a story in Tuesday’s paper about the GOALS (Growth, Opportunity, Acceptance, Leadership and Service) student group at Glacial Drumlin School in Cottage Grove, which is trying to help build students’ empathy skills by having them complete the sentence “If you were walking in my shoes, you would know ....”

But then among some of the more stock responses about liking a particular sport or being “very busy” were these: “my brother has autism,” “I mainly sit on my bed and watch TV,” “how hard it is being a twin” and “how hard my life is.”

After two months of people picking sides, hardening positions and spin at the state Capitol — not to mention a partisan stalemate over the national budget — I have to admit a middle-schooler’s willingness to be publicly introspective, blunt and vulnerable brought a lump to my throat.

School psychologist Melissa Smith, GOALS’ adviser, said students in fifth through eighth grade are in a good developmental position to learn empathy because they are moving from the self-focused perspective of a child to figuring how they fit into the larger groups and subgroups of the adult world.

Indeed, middle-schoolers do a “tremendous amount of self-reflection,” according to UW-Madison educational psychologist Bradford Brown, and at the same time are becoming more sensitive to cliques and group membership.

Such growth implies monumental internal struggles, not something we in the grown-up world seem to engage in much, especially in the grown-up world of politics.

But imagine if our elected officials were capable of putting themselves out there like Glacial Drumlin students and, moreover, didn’t have to fear getting punished for it. Would Gov. Scott Walker profess he spends much of his time thinking about how to position himself for a presidential run? Would Wisconsin State Employees Union executive director Marty Beil say he worries about being out of a job? Can personal revelation help to humanize our opponents?

Smith said it appears that what substitutes for empathy among many politicians is its developmental lesser: zealotry. And “once the emotions take over, all the thinking stops,” she said. But she’d like to believe that we could all improve our empathy skills, regardless of age.

So does that mean GOALS might have a future in politics?

“Could we take it to the Capitol?” she said. “I’d love to.”

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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