"In the Shadow of Thy Wings"
She came in late. School started at 8:35 but it was nearly 9:30 when she shuffled into the classroom. She ignored the teacher’s welcome, hung up her grease-stained backpack, walked to her desk, and put her head in her hands. Within ten minutes, her body slumped in slumber.
At lunch my cooperating teacher, Sandy, filled in the details. This was her 37th year teaching in the district – among the poorest and poorest performing in the state. I was a 21-year-old student teacher, and we had 32 four-graders between us. Tina, she said, had an older brother whose dark defiance had earned him a place in a special school after his fifth grade year. It was an open secret that her father was a major player in the local drug trade, she said. No one doubts he beats the wife; probably the kids, probably worse. Yes, the social worker has filed with the state. If this kid were in Lexington she would have been removed years ago, but here . . . well, welcome to the neighborhood.
That afternoon, I followed the students to music. “I’m the old vet in this school,” Sandy said, “so I get the tough ones in my class. These specialist teachers can’t handle them on their own, yet. Go help them out.” We hadn’t finished the welcome song before Tina walked to the upright piano and curled herself beneath it, wrapping her arms around the leg. When I went to retrieve her, tears were streaming down her face, but I couldn’t hear a sound – even her breathing was silent.
The silence lasted two days. “Don’t you f**** touch my stuff!” I spun around to see Tina – a full head smaller than the smallest student – digging her nails into Jeffrey’s arm. Her eyes were wild. Silence, fists, and an occasional simple addition problem. That was the best we could do for a few weeks.
One October day, Sandy pulled me aside. “Expect Tina to be a little off her game today. It’s her birthday. Her brother was always a terror on his birthday – not much for a celebration at home.” I riffled through my bag, in search of something, some little present. I found two Halloween pencils and a sheet of pumpkin stickers. I made a card and placed them in her desk. She didn’t acknowledge the gesture, didn’t even look at me as she left that day.
When I arrived the next morning, a package was sitting in the center of my desk. Someone had ripped the book cover off a math book and used it for wrapping paper. A Dole banana sticker ripped in two served as tape. And scrawled in black marker:
To Miss F.
From your firend Tina
I unwrapped the package to find a rag doll – her face was smudged, her dressed stained. When Tina walked in, she simply stared at me. I nodded and smiled. She practiced her spelling without complaint.
I am fairly certain I have never prayed more fervently than I did during those six months for those 32 students. My other teaching practicums had been almost effortless. But here I was, running a reading group with nine students who didn’t have basic decoding skills, checking homework that was completed in homeless shelters, and feeling more than I had thought possible. And then there was Tina. She was beginning to trust me, she was beginning to read; she even learned her times tables. But I knew the statistics were stacked against her. her smudged face and fits of tears made me question all I knew about justice and mercy.
On my last day of student teaching, I once again followed the students to music. The students were well trained by now, and I could sit on the back bench and watch. After a few minutes, Tina came to sit next to me. She curled up on the bench and laid her head in my lap. I stroked her hair and listened to her breathing. I’m not sure how to explain what happened next. On a single inhale – for just a fraction of a second – I thought I saw her far from here, standing someplace warm and someplace gentle. Her face was clean. On her exhale, I felt a force from Elsewhere, felt more love than my body could hold, as if God wanted to touch her for a just moment in this lonely world and my lap was nearest conduit They could find. Tina fell fast asleep.
I don’t know the ending to her story. I lost track of her after a year or two. Every fall, I pull out the doll; sometimes I tell my students about her. They pass it around gingerly; they look at her picture peering from the old class photo, frozen in time.
I know I learned something of mercy that semester, something of God’s love in this shadow world. But justice? It still doesn’t seem fair . . .