I saw the notice: Retired school teacher looking for volunteers to work with children at a local elementary school. Informational meeting on Sunday night. I could do that. Probably should think about it.
I heard the story: While running errands on a cold, snow-blowing day in December, it came on the radio. A young deaf boy, once rendered “unteachable”. A Christian woman–no relation–who wouldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t possibly have known his future held a Ph.D. OK, Lord. I’ll go to the meeting…
And so I went, and I committed to two 30-minute sessions per week with a child who needed help learning. One measly hour per week.
In January 2002 I walked into the elementary school for the first time and was met by the principal. He was waiting for me with a child in mind, and so we went to the third grade classroom, but the boy was absent that day. I was then told there was a little girl–a first grader. As we turned to walk down another hall, I had no idea how my life was about to change…
The names in this story are not real. The facts are.
The teacher stepped out into the hall. She told me very little about the child other than to say she had come to school hungry–again–and would I please take her to the cafeteria to see if I could find something for her to eat. “There’s no need to hurry. Just spend time with her.” Of course.
And so Mrs. Lamb called the little girl with big brown eyes and curly dark hair to the door… and she introduced me to Rae. “Ms. Susan is going to walk with you to the cafeteria.” Simple enough.
So began the very first of many walks Rae and I would take down the long hall… and the first of many conversations. I could hear her little tummy growling as we entered the cafeteria–and as I asked for a snack. When my request was met with a lengthy explanation about how breakfast wasn’t served that morning because school started an hour late (weather issues), I remember tapping my ear as if to say This child is listening–and she’s hungry–and she could sure use an advocate. I patiently told the woman we didn’t need much; perhaps just some milk and crackers. Almost reluctantly (think I cared?), she obliged.
And so Rae and I sat down in the big, quiet cafeteria and chatted for thirty minutes. She was quite the little talker, and I got an ear full, all the while making mental notes of the people in her life and the things she liked to do.
Her parents were divorced. She lived with her mother who apparently had a sometimes live-in boyfriend. Her father lived in town, and sometimes she got to see him. She liked animals–and pink–and she had a little sister in kindergarten. Her name was Lexxie.
I later learned from Mrs. Lamb that when she became Rae’s teacher mid-semester, Rae was not able to participate in classroom activities; she just laid on the floor and scooted herself around the room. It was distracting to some of the students, but at least she was quiet. Rae had supposedly tested positive for ADD, but as often as not, she wasn’t given her medicine before coming to school; it hurt her stomach anyway. Some of those challenges had been addressed, but the little girl often still did her own thing because she tested “special needs” in several areas, and there simply wasn’t time for the one-on-one she needed to see how much she could learn.
One measly hour per week. How could it possibly make a difference in this child’s life?
Over the next few weeks, Rae and I became friends. She learned to trust me. She knew I would be there to “work” with her. She felt special. She was.
From January through May we “worked” by playing games… and she started learning. Letters and the sounds they make. Simple math. Handwriting. Creative writing. We celebrated her seventh birthday. We checked out library books; picture books first then easy readers. Finally, she was sounding out the words in P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? It’s one of my favorites, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her!
I saw things in Rae that made me strongly doubt the “special education” track she was on…
But in the midst of all the positives at school, her home life was unsteady. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. Mrs. Lamb and the school counselor intervened. Children’s Services intervened. It seemed there was no suitable family with whom to place Rae and Lexxie should the court deem it necessary.
Renaissance Man and I searched our hearts–and our crowded schedules–and asked ourselves some hard questions. Our own daughters were in college. These two little girls were almost exactly the same ages our daughters were when Renaissance Man and I married. The thought of “starting over” – and with children whose emotional needs were so great… But these are children, and they deserve stability and a future. And so two people, who never saw themselves as foster parents, communicated to Children’s Services that we were available should another incident occur.
Eventually–as feared–it did. A court date was set, and Renaissance Man and I were told by Children’s Services to be prepared for the probability of the judge removing the girls from their home. The thought of two little girls going through such an ordeal broke our hearts, and we knew nothing was certain, but we – with some trepidation – moved forward to prepare our home for their first night… “just in case”.
Precious friends loaned us twin beds. We painted the guest room a happy yellow and bought matching comforters in a delightful pink and blue and yellow print. We didn’t wash the matching sheets… “just in case” it all needed to be returned. I spent more time in the little girl’s hair accessories aisle at Wal-Mart than I’d spent in years… and I bought lavender bubble bath–and linen spray for their pillowcases. Lord, what else can I do to help them relax?
The date came. We met Mrs. Lamb at the courthouse. The judge had some harsh words for the girls’ mother – and gave her one month to prove she was listening.
Renaissance Man and I visited our daughter in England as planned, returning home two days before the next court date. I called Mrs. Lamb only to learn that another incident had occurred before we even left the country, and the girls had become wards of the state. She was out of town but presumed we’d been called. Why weren’t we called? Where were the girls?
Fighting an anxious heart – and jet lag – I tracked down the social worker. For obvious reasons, he couldn’t tell me much, but the girls had been placed outside of the county. He thought. He thought?
I contacted the court-appointed attorney and explained the situation. He was very kind and, although he didn’t confirm an out-of-county placement, he told me a relative had been found to take the girls. Of course my overprotective, Mama Bear heart wanted to react, but I knew: When possible, children need to stay with family; even extended family. We’d been available, but we were not needed. I had done what I could to get Rae on a better path in school, and I would pray with all my heart “forever” that whoever took her in would love her and help her get the education she deserved.
Most days I wish the story had ended there, but it didn’t.
Shortly after the new school year began, I learned (I think from a teacher friend) that Rae and Lexxie were students at a different elementary school in the county. Apparently they were living with an aunt who had a daughter of her own; she seemed to be interested in the girls’ education. I contacted the school principal, told him of Rae’s wonderful progress the previous year – and of my desire to, once again, volunteer to help with her schoolwork. Even if Rae’s current teacher had no need of the extra help, I was even happy to assist after school. I suggested he call the principal at the first school so he’d know I was legitimate. He promised he would relay my offer to Rae’s aunt and call me the following week.
But he didn’t… and so I called him again.
He “hadn’t had a chance” to talk to Rae’s aunt yet… Seriously? Someone is volunteering to help one of your students and you can’t find time to make a phone call to facilitate that? …but he promised to call me “in a few days”. I told him I would be out of town but provided my cell number and said to call anytime.
He didn’t… and so I emailed him (no response) and called him again when I got back home.
Please, Mr. Old-school Principal, let’s help this little girl. If not me, then someone. Anyone! Please tell me she’s getting the one-on-one assistance she needs to get to grade level – and beyond!
Instead, I was told he tried to talk to the aunt, but she didn’t know me (totally understandable; let’s meet!), and he wasn’t willing to vouch for me since he obviously didn’t bother to call the first principal. Instead, he told me how previous volunteers “from that college” (where my husband was a VP at the time) had made promises in the past and not delivered; he left no doubt that he didn’t think I would either. He obviously didn’t know me, and I was furious – but mostly heartbroken – that he would so readily close the door, leaving me no room to wonder. I knew. I was not welcome at “his” school.
In disbelief I hung up the phone… and the deepest from-the-gut wild cry shook my body until I put my head down on the desk and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Oh, God, what about Rae? What will happen to her?
Rae will turn nineteen this Spring. I’ve never seen her again. I don’t know what happened to her, but I know what happened to my heart. It was broken into tiny pieces, and as it healed, a little-girl-sized hole was left.
Many times through the years I’ve thought of returning to the school – the first one! – to tutor children, but I wouldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough to risk another broken heart, and so I stayed busy with other worthwhile projects – and some not so worthwhile – but always there was something that tugged at my heart to do more.
It’s been long enough. I’m going to risk another broken heart. Truth is, stepping outside my comfort zone to help a child is an almost certain way to assure a broken heart because the realities so many little ones live are heart-wrenching. But this time I’m older – and wiser – and I know I’ll need to focus on the blessings… I also know a little numbness in the form of temporary walls around the heart isn’t always a bad thing. The children of Hope Unlimited have taught me that.
So I’m risking… I don’t know yet what that will look like, but next week I’ll start meeting with various agencies in my community to see where our children’s greatest needs are. If I can plug in to an existing one, I will. If I learn of a need no one is addressing, I’ll see if my skills are a good fit. The only thing I know for sure: Every tiny step we take out of our comfort zone toward obedience will be blessed.
Thanks, Amy Sullivan for the encouragement!