Several times since my long-term sub job in third grade turned into a full-time position in 2014, my husband has asked me, “I wonder why God keeps sending you back to that tiny, rural school? It’s a different little world out there.”
It’s a world far from our community where some of my sons’ peers received new sports cars as graduation gifts this past weekend and the entire bill for a prom date’s makeup, hair, nails, shoes and dress exceeds some of the annual tax returns in this neck of the woods. Very often, our kids come to school from homes where food is scarce and shoes are tight. In their lives, squirrels and road kill ducks have been known to supplement student diets when the money runs out before the month ends.
Our students are exposed to lifestyles and substances we may have only seen in the movies. In the theater, we can’t taste the metal/chemical smell of homemade meth as it creeps under the large crack between the mobile home floor and the bedroom door that separates a sleeping child from the nightly party on the patio. In the theater, we can’t feel the burn of secondhand marijuana smoke in the back of our throats as we tell our mamas about our day at school. In the theater, we can turn our eyes away from the screen when a man we wanted to trust does unspeakable things that would crush the soul of any adult, let alone a vulnerable child. We can walk out of the theater and drive home to our comfortable beds and full refrigerators. But our students? They can’t walk out of their lives.
You know what they can do? They can wake up every morning, (many of them do this on their own, while caregivers continue to sleep) get dressed and wait for the bus to school. School, where they are met with warm smiles, cheery “Good mornings!” and free breakfast to start their day.
I used to do breakfast duty. I saw them – hair unbrushed, shoes untied, eyes tired or scared or sad. You know who I’m talking about. The ones who consistently forget their backpacks, their homework, their field trip permission slips. The ones who act out because it’s easier than speaking out about the pain in their past or the fear in their present. The LOUD ones. The quiet ones. The ones who smell like B.O. or worse. The ones whose fingernails are black under the rims. The ones who lie. The ones who take things that don’t belong to them. The ones who want seconds and thirds when the food is free. You know who I’m talking about. These are the kids who keep coming, day after day. The ones who are NEVER absent, the ones who are the reasons we take mental health days and keep that bottle of Barefoot in the back of the cupboard – just in case.
I often share anecdotes from work with my family. We laugh together around the dinner table about things my students have said or done. Like the time I gave a science test and the question was, “Name something that can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas.” A first grader wrote, “A skunk” for the answer. Curious, I called him up to my desk, asking for an explanation. The answer I was looking for was, “Water.” But Dillon defended his answer, declaring, “A skunk IS solid, but it’s blood and stuff is liquid and what it sprays out it’s butt is a gas!” I gave him credit.
And then there was the student who told me his family bought their Christmas tree at the Dollar Genital store. And the one who daily pledged allegiance to the flag of the United Steaks of America (That was when I lived in the heart of Texas cattle country and so it kind of made sense – everyone in Texas pledges allegiance to their steaks).
The “funny” stories from our little school kinda made me want to cry more than laugh. Like the day I was discussing something about magnets with my kindergarteners and one of them said, “Yeah, I know about magnets. Those are the little white things that live in the bottom of our garbage cans.”
But, what really got me was the first grade literacy lesson where we were learning about the QU digraph. The students had to read several words that begin with qu – quiet, quick, quit, quack. After trying to figure out “quack” – rather than understand that quack is the sound a duck makes, three students had a discussion among themselves about the meaning of “quack.”
One said, “Oh! Quack! That’s the reason my dad went to jail.” Another chimed in, “You, know – quack. It’s what you smoke, only it’s not like cigarettes.” And the third nodded his head in agreement, adding, “Isn’t that illegal?”
I just sat there, tears brimming around the edges of my eyes. I was so sorry my six year old students heard the word quack – a word most toddlers learn from cardboard picture books on their mama’s lap as they point to ducks and ducklings, and instead had visions of incarcerated fathers and police officers and stuff you smoke that’s not cigarettes.
Unfortunately I knew about quack, too. I couldn’t share with my students that I understood the pain and fear of watching someone you love choose drugs over family and jail time over home time because of that illegal stuff you smoke that’s not at all like cigarettes. I ache for these kids because I once lost a nearly 13 year marriage to a man I chose to love through his addiction to cocaine and then crack. I watched him go through rehab and relapse and then receive a 12 year prison sentence. I had to walk away when he chose the drug over the life we had made together. I know about “quack.”
And I know about being a teacher who sometimes comes to school with a heavy heart because the issues at home are so bad that school seems like the safest place on earth. I will never forget the hell I lived as the schoolteacher wife of a drug-dealer with a warrant out for his arrest. And I know how it feels to be the mom of teenagers who attend a high school filled with students fighting similar demons.
And I, like so many of you, no matter what is happening at home (whether it’s an unfaithful or inattentive or nonexistent spouse, kids in rebellion, physical or mental health issues, financial issues, depression, you-name-it, cuz life on planet earth is hard sometimes)… WE put on our big girl panties and our emotional spanx and our waterproof mascara every day and come to school and smile and hug and greet and love on kids whose worlds are chaos at home. Kids whose safe place is school, where we are the most consistent thing in their worlds. Where they can spend years of their lives on campus with the SAME teachers and administrators and coaches and cafeteria workers and whomever else is brave enough to keep coming back, year after year after year. A place where the music teacher or the kind custodian is the only sane, sober, constant male in their lives when parents and step parents come and go through the revolving door of their childhoods and continue to disappoint.
School, glorious school! Where love is unconditional, manners are modeled, forgiveness is extended, and grace, like lunch, is free!
One of my favorite speakers, a man named Jesus once said these words. They are recorded in the book of Matthew, Chapter 25 (The paraphrase is mine).
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the school districts will be gathered before him, and he will separate the teachers one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and shoes and maybe a winter jacket, and you clothed me, I was sick or maybe just needed that one on one attention I receive in the nurse’s clinic and you wrote me a pass, I was in the prison of my topsy-turvy world and you came to visit me.’
“Then the teachers will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or find out one of your parents was in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these kindergarten, elementary, middle school or high school students of mine, you did for me.’
May I, like Jesus, say to all educators ending another school year, “Well done, good and faithful teachers, well done!”
This is YOUR ministry
Touching each little life
one at a time.
In life’s grand scheme,
it may seem
to hold a hand,
or lend an ear.
But these are moments
quite well spent.
may not be received at home.
But their futures
will shine brighter
from the love
that you have shown.
a gentle word,
a friendly smile –
may on this earth
appear to go unnoticed,
but in heaven,
it’s all worthwhile.
day after day,
giving Clay Hill’s kids
You’ve made such a difference,
And because of you,
have been blessed!
—Juliet Van Heerden