Somewhere, a long time ago, I read a story about a father and son. As they walked along a beach one day, they came upon hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand. In response to viewing these refugees, the little boy began to throw them back into the ocean and give them a chance to live. The father scoffed at him. “What the heck are you doing?” (Or something to that effect). “And how can that possibly make a difference?”
The boy looked up at his father with huge translucent eyes and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”
Sweet, sentimental story isn’t it? I loved it! I believed it! Worst of all, I lived it! How do you ask? As a teacher.
As a teacher, I am faced in a daily battle with poverty, drugs, abuses of each and every kind, and hopeless individuals who are trying to get an education. That’s on a good day.
Sometimes children walk through my door from broken homes with little or no self-value. Children who desperately need a kind of help that goes beyond an education. Children who often have little to offer and are in need of so much.
Jennifer was that way, a nine-year-old bottomless pit. A product of a broken home, she lived in a shelter in East Dallas with a baby brother and a mother who was trying to begin her life over. Each individual in that family came with their own set of baggage, and none was heavier than Jennifer’s.
Immediately she tested me, pushing me beyond my mortal limits. Nothing I could do, not kindness, not praise, not gentle redirection, not anger, not even motherly “looks” as reminders for her to make wise decisions could sway her behavior.
I finally gave her a student contract to complete and tried to get hold of a very bad situation. It only got worse. In walked her mother with a set of problems of her own so wide and deep it would have filled the aquatic needs of the earth.
In a meeting with my principal, the mother berated me and accused me (in so many words) of abusing her precious angel. In her mind, I was the culprit. How dare I expect her daughter to follow the same set of rules that every other child in my classroom had to follow? How dare I demand her not to hit, steal, or abuse her fellow students? I was the one at fault – the monster – the demon who demanded insurmountable things from her daughter. I left that meeting angry but still determined to help that child despite the lack of support from the parent.
But after months of trying to work with Jennifer in one manner or another, she checked out of school. At first, I thought – hallelujah!
Then I felt heartbroken. Out of everything I had tried, nothing seemed to work. I had to try one more time to reach her. Before she walked out that door, I took her aside and bent down to her level. “Jennifer, I said, my insides shaking, “no matter where you end up, how your day goes depends on you. You can’t always blame everything on your friends, your classmates, your teachers – anyone. You have to take responsibility for your own actions.” Even at nine, I knew she was old enough to comprehend this. She shifted from one foot to another and would not face me. “Do you understand?”
Out jutted her lip – an insolent reminder of many a battle. But she nodded her head. To appease me? To get rid of me? To get to the office where her mom was waiting? Probably all of the above.
All I know is I felt beaten, licked. Despite my best efforts, I had lost this battle. She would have to go on without any of the good things I had to offer that might have helped her through life – including her self-esteem.
I sighed and watched her walk down the long hallway towards the office. Then I stood up, straightened my shoulders and marched back into my classroom where twenty-one starfish sat waiting expectantly.