The child who changed my teaching career



Devon Wichael and Lauren Strawderman at John Wayland Elementary reflect on good times at school. © Pinwheel Collective

I once heard someone say that it is easy to dwell on the pain others cause us, but real strength comes when we recognize the pain we have caused others and grow from that. I am going to let myself be vulnerable as I recall an incident in my early teaching career which became a growth curve for me.

After graduation, I set out to teach first grade in an inner city setting. As a new teacher, I quickly fell in love with the rowdy, boisterous children with their personalities, real problems, and lights burning behind their eyes. There was the child who wet herself; the child with a temper; children with learning disabilities; children whom I could attach myself to; children who created the stories that I would tell; children who made me weep or laugh.

It was in this setting that I met her, the child who would change me for the rest of my teaching days. She was a pale slip of a little girl, sort of white on yellow, her face an unfocused blur. Her presence or absence left no ripple in our room. Was she there or wasn’t she? It hardly made a difference.

Penmanship was stressed in those long ago days. I followed the curriculum carefully. A supervisor monitored me. My small charges practiced drawing circles and ovals. The little girl who was absent even when she was there, carefully drew squares and rectangles. I was detached, but firm, and one morning I said with cold steel in my voice as I passed her desk, “Circles and ovals!” My pencil bit down on her paper. The next morning she was gone. A week later the truant officer reported to me that the mother refused to send her daughter to my classroom, because I frightened her.

I knew that I was a very good person, and in my indignation I turned to a regal, experienced teacher with beautiful, white hair swept up into a pompadour. This teacher assured me that the mother was only “white trash.” She and her children weren’t fit to walk on the same side of the street with me. “Don’t give it another thought, Honey. Good riddance!” But I went home with disquiet in my soul.

From the very beginning, my husband has been my best friend and mentor. “What do you know about this child?” he asked. “Why is she not happy?” I chose to listen to my husband. I phoned the mother. “I am sorry that your little girl does not feel safe in my room. Would you please allow me to make a home visit? Maybe you can help me to understand. Please help me to be better for your daughter.”

I took a coloring book and crayons along on my visit the following evening. I found a timid and frightened little mother cowering with her children in the presence of a huge, domineering father. I watched and listened. When it was time to say, “Good bye,” I knelt and looked into the little girl’s eyes. “I hope that you will come back,” I whispered.

Each morning I monitored the classroom door.  And then she was there, fluttering like a pale and fragile moth. I found every opportunity to smile into her eyes; to gently touch her hand; to compliment her. I finally really saw her. I paid attention. I admired her subtle beauty and strength. And then one morning she labored on at her desk during “free activity time.” Suddenly she bolted from behind that desk and shot across the classroom into my arms. “Teacher! Teacher!” she gasped. “Look at my paper!” There were rows of perfect circles and ovals.

Through that humbling and heart wrenching experience of so long ago, I learned that teaching was not just about curriculums or even output. I learned that indifference to a child is violence against that child. Teaching was about seeing and knowing the child. Teaching was also about receiving and growing personally. Teaching was about learning who I am and confronting the enemy who dwells within. I learned to select carefully who would be my mentors and the voices I would listen to.

The next morning she was gone. A week later the truant officer reported to me that the mother refused to send her daughter to my classroom, because I frightened her.

I spent nearly 30 fulfilled years teaching young children. There were the blessed children who came to me with their synapses connecting perfectly and their neurons sparking. They gave sanity and orderliness to my classroom. But there were also children who were “other” like those with autism, the legally blind children, and hearing impaired; the angry, emotionally disturbed, and deprived children; the children who were mere shadows; the English as a Second Language children, the developmentally delayed and children with learning disabilities. All of these children, easy or difficult needed to be really SEEN and validated. They needed to be taught the joy of active learning.

I have been told by supervisors that in another life I should be a resource teacher and totally concentrate on children who are “other,” because I connected with them so well. Those supervisors were wrong. My greatest passion has been the diversity of all the children coming together in my classroom.

I’m reminded of the familiar Bible story of Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl in the house of Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 16. Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and treated her harshly and Hagar fled to the wilderness. But she was found by a messenger from God as she wandered alone out there. This messenger met her at a spring, where he pointed her to water which quenched her aching thirst. The messenger gave Hagar a blessing and empowered her to become all that she was meant to be. Hagar named God’s messenger a name which meant, “The one who sees me.”

What a profound truth! That messenger so totally looked into her soul and responded to her need. That Bible story was a conversion experience for me as a teacher and changed my life. It totally brought my teaching philosophy (Know the Child; Validate the Child) together with my spiritual journey.

I believe that God uses ordinary persons to be messengers, to really SEE others, and to encourage and empower the wanderer. As “God’s messenger at the well,” I felt empowered to help bring about a tiny “peaceable kingdom” in my classrooms as I invited all of my students to quench their thirst.

ANNA KATHRYN EBY is a retired school teacher who taught many years in Harrisonburg, Va., and Rockingham County, Va., schools.


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