“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”
In my local elementary school, I saw a child who looked bowed by burdens too heavy for his small shoulders. Tears ran down his cheeks unaccompanied by the slightest sound. He slouched, alone, at a table in the back of his fourth grade classroom, his face to the wall of backpacks, coats, scarves, lunch boxes, and little boots.
“Tony,” his teacher said looking in his direction. Her expression was that combination of helplessness and frustration I have seen too often on teachers who have too many students and too little assistance with the difficult ones.
I was a substitute for the special education teacher who provides individual and small group instruction to children who have difficulty learning in a regular classroom. I am untrained in psychology, inexperienced in special education. My whole body relaxed when I realized Tony was not among the three students I was picking up for a math lesson. But Tony’s face haunted me while I taught three children how to add triple digit numbers in the small special education room. Why was he sitting alone? Why did he have smudgy gray shadows under his eyes? Why was he weeping silently? Children bawl or sob; they do not suffer in silence.
The brightly colored motivational posters on the wall mocked me with their upbeat clichés while I drew smiley faces on my students’ neatly completed math papers. Anyone can teach willing children how to add. I walked them back to their classroom satisfied that I had done my job well but sad that for some children life is a painful struggle seldom lightened by joy.
Every day is a second chance
That afternoon, I returned to Tony’s classroom and was met by an eager Max who told me he loves reading. My other student for the reading lesson was Tony. He was still sitting in the back of the room, still weeping silently. He did not argue with me when I asked him to come for his lesson. He simply did not move. His teacher coaxed him. Max pleaded and promised the lesson would be fun. Tony looked like he was trying to vanish. I sat beside him and told him I hoped he would come with us. I promised to bring him back to his classroom if he felt uncomfortable.
Slowly, he got up. He shuffled after Max and me like a condemned man, tears dripping on the floor. I was out of my depth with this child, yet no one else had time to urge him out of that lonely chair. Walking down the hall, I hid my panic when I realized I did not know the location of the panic button in my little room. What if he had a meltdown?
I sat facing my two students and began with my usual ice breaker. “I’ll tell you one thing about me, then you tell me one thing about you.” Max looked expectant. Tony looked at his shoe. I told them I had two dogs, Bailey who is a perfect little lady and Homer who is so naughty the whole neighborhood calls him Homer Simpson. Max giggled. Tony did not look up. I asked Tony if he would tell us one thing about himself. He shook his head.
Max proudly reported that his mom makes pancakes every Sunday. I told Tony that I knew one thing about him. “You have great taste in shirts,” I said, “That is my very favorite shade of blue.”
Not expecting an answer, I turned to get the lesson folder.
Tony mumbled, “I shoplifted it.”
Be awesome today
A response was not optional, but what response? No educational “best practice” spoke to this situation. I said the first thing that came to mind. “I shop lifted a crayon when I was five because I broke my red crayon in a brand new box I got for my birthday. I got caught and I got punished. I never enjoyed coloring after that, especially with red crayons.”
Max offered that shop lifting was bad. Tony looked uneasy.
“I think Tony was being creative with his shoplifting story.” I said. “I love creative stories. We’re going to talk about one right now.” I handed each boy a work sheet. I was stunned to see that Tony’s tears had stopped.
Two questions into the work sheet, Tony’s sweet soul melted his armor of belligerence. He smiled. I will never forget that smile. With every personal defeat, I will see Tony’s smile and know that for one shining moment goodness gathered around the troubled mind of a child.
We had a lively lesson. Both boys participated. They were so proud of their worksheets they wanted to show them to their teacher instead of leaving them on the special education teacher’s desk. I walked them back to their classroom, my feet twitching to dance. Max held my hand, and Tony walked tall and proud. He handed his teacher his paper and said, “I answered every question.” The worry lines on her forehead eased as she congratulated him. She followed me out into the hall. “He hasn’t done a bit of work all week,” she said. “Thank you.”
Driving home, I felt humbled to have witnessed such a butterfly moment. I wondered what had made the difference for Tony. Was it something Max said? Was it something I did? Or did an angel whisper in Tony’s ear: “You are worthy; you are loved.”
Whatever happened, it cannot be explained by a catchy phrase on a motivational poster.
Originally published in Globe & Mail