Sometimes it’s the simple things that remind me of why I continue to do what I do. It seems as if some new uphill challenge always looms on the horizon and moving up that hill can feel overwhelming. I have come to believe it’s what we do with our challenges, not what we allow our challenges to do to us, that defines who we ultimately become as we face each day of our life.
Doug Reeves says when harmonious passion, a belief we make a difference and we can see the results of our work, exists in people we remain optimistic, despite challenges. Ira Socol speaks to the importance of courageous creativity within those pathfinders who willingly take risks to try something new to solve problems rather than continuing to sustain the schooling traditions of our past. Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark as pushing forward on an uncharted journey into the unknown; indeed a voyage of life and death challenges. These two embodied what Ambrose labels as “undaunted courage.” And, then there’s Charley who articulates his perspective upon Willy’s life in the Requiem at the end of Death of a Salesman, speaking to the dreams that sustain us even when we feel unfulfilled and a bit lost in our careers.
“ He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.” – Charley
Adding children’s handmade ornaments to the Christmas tree each year became at some point my own annual retrospective on the challenges of life and the importance of sustaining passion, creativity, courage, and dreams in meeting and moving past challenges. The ornaments became my metaphor for why I do what I do.
When I first heard of “Joanie”, she was described as a challenged young girl who had never attended school. She was wheelchair bound with both physical and mental disabilities, including the need to be catherized daily. At age 12, not too long after the newly minted federal legislation for IDEA, her parents enrolled her in school for the first time. We teachers were all scared of what it would mean to be responsible for this child. As a second year teacher, she ended up with me.
I learned from “Joanie” what undaunted courage looks like in a child, She’d never been out of the home, experienced other children her age, or trusted adults other than her parents to take care of her. Yet, she rolled in to the school foyer without looking back at her parents standing at the door. Over months she became a part of my class, learning to care about and trust us as we also learned to care about and trust her. I will never forget the day, a friend rolled her to our newly constructed goldfish pond and she was selected by classmates to carefully place our goldfish in their new home. And, I will always remember when she came by my room with her mother and handed me this ornament, saying “thank you for letting me be in your class.” I learned from her that a child should never have to feel grateful for being included in a classroom community.
He was a scrawny little boy, “Jack.” Some days, I had to force myself to go to him to check on his work because the smell was overpowering. No one wanted to sit near him. It was woodsmoke, clothes too long unwashed, and that feel he was always looking at other children’s food as if he was ready to fight them for it. Yet, it seemed somehow right that I would let this country kid bring his pet squirrel to school to share with the class (this occurred long before such a thing would be totally verboten in our schools.) He never said thank you, but I shouldn’t have expected his gratitude anyway for simply being able to contribute something of himself to the class.
I’m not sure where he got the glitter or the toothpicks to make an ornament for a teacher, but I do know that he probably had to build up more than a little courage to sneak the stuff home from school. Right before the winter holidays, he handed the ornament he’d created wrapped up in some toilet paper. He taught me the importance of “teacher” that year and while every child is worthy of attention, some children need us more than others to survive life’s slaps of fate.
I loved this kid. “Bobby” couldn’t read, but since he loved science we got along well. After all, our passion for science wasn’t shared universally in our class. His enthusiasm had no boundaries – a constant stream of questions and comments about all things science. I could always count on him to hang around after class to ask if he could help clean up or set up lab activities. However, I did have a conundrum about what to do when he failed every written test that first marking period. Somewhere inside me, I began to learn from his results what children know and understand inside their minds does not always match what they put on the paper we call tests. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to the others that I started reading him the tests at lunch and letting him answer questions orally. No one told me to stop. And, I didn’t ask for permission. Every time I place his ornament on the tree- made from burnt matches and an old card- I remember that everything worth measuring can’t be measured in the same way for every child.
After all my years in education, I now have a collection of children’s ornaments to place on the family tree. Each one recalls a child and reminds me that the dreams I had as a young teacher are just as important now as they were at any point in my career. I also know I’ve learned as much from children as I have helped them learn. In many ways, they have been my best teachers.
These simple gifts remind me why I keep pushing up the hill.