"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 . . .

Deborah

Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. Eve says:

    Deborah, what a gorgeous, heartrending post. Thanks.

  2. John says:

    What Eve said. Thank you.

  3. jana says:

    Deborah, I’m sure you know this already, but you are _so_ in the right profession! Tina and the others that you’ve taught are so lucky to have you as their teacher. 🙂

    Memories like this, I expect, help you (and us all) make it through the dark days, those moments where it seems even our biggest efforts can’t make a difference in alleviating the hurts of this troubled world.

  4. Jeuls says:

    I was a “Tina” as a child. One of myriads of course. Still, I thank all the Deborah’s in this world, for being just enough of what I needed to survive my youth. And God for putting them in my path; you are the reason I am the person I am today.

    Oddly, (and I can only really attribute this to the atonement–which I barely understand still but it’s the only possible explanation) the wretchedness and darkness and loathing of my childhood have actually been replaced by a sweet sense of gratitude for the things I learned from that time. They made me who I am, and formed my compassionate heart. But I’m only able to be grateful because I made it. And I only made it because of people like you, Deborah. You have no idea how even the smallest kind gesture can imprint upon someone like Tina (or me). one small gesture carried me for years on end.

    It’s easy to forget, when one’s life is full, that sometimes it’s just a small, simple thing, that brings great things to pass.

  5. Deborah says:

    Jeuls: Thank you for your thoughts. I shouldn’t be crying because my first class starts in ten minutes! I guess this is what we hope for in this world, that grace provides pockets of light in the darkness — and that we can help be that grace for others. Thanks again.

  6. Seraphine says:

    Thanks, Deborah, for this lovely post.

  7. Eve says:

    And I just have to second Jana–Deborah, you sound like one fantastic teacher. If I had kids, you are just the kind of teacher I would want for them.

  8. sarah says:

    I’m curious. Do you ever have the urge to return to an “inner city” type setting for teaching, or do you find that the upper-middle class students have just as many issues and just as much need of a teacher’s love and care? I always wonder if I’m selling out by not working with the poor and disadvantaged. My heart breaks for children who never get a real childhood (particularly since adopting one and realizing what an impact neglect and/or abuse has on a life), though I realize that these children exist in all economic spheres and cultures; maybe it is just more obvious in schools like that one because the social structure for getting them help is harder to navigate and you can’t help but feel more helpless and less able to “save” those who need saving. I remember that year was hard on you emotionally and that you shed a lot of tears. Do you ever consider returning to a similar setting? How do people who work in such settings maintain hope and not get seeped in anger at the injustices in the world? It can’t be easy.

  9. Deborah says:

    Sarah:

    Ironically, my most needy children have been the very poorest and very richest. I’ve helped many a child of wealthy parents find their way to some sort of help for agression, learning disabilities, eating disorders, depression, etc.

    That said, I think about it from time to time. But I wouldn’t go back to a traditional public school at this point in my career — the bureaucracy, unions, and crazy laws . . . I’m too impatient and big picture oriented. It’s just not worth it to me after experiencing the freedom and ingenuity that comes from working in independent schools and to a lesser extent charter schools.

    If I returned to the inner-city sector, I would be most interested in helping run a tuition-free independent school (like Mother Caroline Academy in Boston). More and more of these are springing up, funded by foundations or (in one amazing case) by an established independent school who chose to create a K-5 tuition free school in an urban neighborhood — a feeder school of sorts to help close the achievement gap.

    Oh, and I won’t be responding on the blog for a few days — I’m about to take off on a camping trip with 50 twelve-year-olds.

  10. Brooke says:

    Deborah, thanks so much for your post. Just beautiful.

  11. Amber says:

    Beautiful, simply beautifully written. What a find your blog is!

  12. stacer says:

    I think you’d find that kind of experience in a rural school, too. Well, actually, I know you would, having grown up dirt poor in a small Illinois farm town and been that girl myself. Rural poverty is just as prevalent as inner city poverty; we just don’t hear about it as much because there are more people, per capita or whatever the term is, in an urban setting and most people who run the media are in an urban setting and aren’t familiar with rural poverty.

    West Virginia and Mississippi, for example, the two poorest states in the nation, would have plenty of schools as disadvantaged as any inner city school.

    Which is what frustrates me about the independent and charter school concept–these things are usually out of the reach of the places that need it most, though at least the inner city kids are getting a little bit of a boost, from the sounds of it.

    The whole thing just makes me sad. I hope someday to be in a position to make a difference.

  13. Deborah says:

    Stacer:

    Now that I’m back in town, I wanted to acknowledge your comment. You are right — in many instances, more resources are available to the children of “urban poor” than those of the “rural poor:” charter schools, magnet schools, university partnerships, charitable foundations, after-school programs . . . even cultural opportunities such as museum trips that might provide an awakening for an occasional child. I spent a few summers consulting with schools in rural South Carolina and Oklahoma, and I worried about students’ isolation from opportunity. (What probably stunned me the most, though, was the degree to which Meth addiction was invading these communities.)

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