In December of 1991 I was finishing up my finals and preparing to student teach in the spring. I was so excited! All I could imagine was how fun being with students was going to be. For the most part I was right. I have had very few days in my career when a child has not deeply touched my heart and given me a chance to thank God for the opportunity to interact with sweet souls.
However, this walk has not been all smiles and sunshine. I estimate I have taught about 1500 kids in the past 21 years. There are twelve I can list who I knew had and eventually did cause harm to others, but with me they were always kind and very well-behaved. These children weren't mentally ill, but rather lived in violence and continued what they knew. Yet, somehow or another they respected me and did most things I requested. Several still drop me a note on occasion or when I see them out and about will give me a big hug and tell me all of their positives. We skip over the arrest reports and just continue as if life is simpler. I still see so much potential. My ability to see their potential and ignore what is often reality has been a gift I have prayed for my whole career. I ask God every night to help me see children with His eyes instead of mine. I fail more than I succeed, but when I do catch a glimpse of all of the gifts and talents even the "naughtiest" child has, I am awed I am allowed to simply be a little part of the grand scheme.
Then there have been the children who have a mental illness. I have taught numerous children with behavior and emotional disorders. There have been cutters who cut themselves in class and sit silently with tears falling. There was the licker who would lick the floor or a peer's leg if I wasn't paying very close attention. There was one who was not allowed any sharp objects including a pencil. The work was done in crayon. There was the one who ate anything in sight from pencils to rulers to hair. There was the one who stayed perched upon the desktop like a frog, but scored higher than anyone in the class. The list could go on further. The children could usually be managed if I simply worked with them and encouraged them. I taught the other children to love them and to accept their issues without ridiculing or teasing. Eventually most would melt into our community. We had cues when they were having a bad day and needed to isolate themselves. Life was not perfect, but we all moved through the year. They learned. The other children learned tolerance and I was blessed to learn to love another soul with a tremendous need.
However of all of the children, I can list three who truly frightened me. I would not wish to be alone with these children as they were unpredictable and had a tendency towards violence. There was a look no amount of soothing could change. One moment everything would be fine and the next I was wondering if I could handle the erratic behavior. I have cleared my classroom twice in my career to ensure other students were safe. Both cases were early on when I did not know how to catch the signs. We would have a run of good weeks and then all of a sudden something would happen to set them off. Each of these three children had one thing in common I will never forget, a tired mother. One shared she locked her other children in their rooms and locked her own door at night. One cried hysterically because no one could help her child. The other blamed the school and tried consistently to make every issue our fault. When her child was arrested for murder, the school was at fault somehow or another in her mind.
Of 1500 children, 3 have frightened me. This is a very small percentage, but it only takes one. We have a serious issue in our country. We can blame gun laws. We can blame violence on television. We can blame the lack of security. We can create more things for schools and teachers to manage. The list goes on and on.
The real issue is we have a small percentage of mentally ill children and adults in this country who have little to no chance of being secured. Our schools and our teachers are ill-equipped to manage this type of mental illness and with such a small percentage training and dealing with these issues could be considered a financially poor choice. Our school counselors are used for every type of paperwork imaginable. Schools have no ability to force parents to ensure their mentally ill children consistently take their medication. The children are often extremely bright and use their abilities to manipulate the system. The intricate web of details creates an extremely complicated picture.
For every maniac who creates havoc, there are others with the same issues who did not create disaster. Why? Who helped these people make the right choices and find some peace? Can we clearly define mentally ill from other environmentally created behavior issues? Does environment matter more than genetics? How do we help mothers and fathers raise and manage their mentally ill children? How do we support teachers who are worn out by one child in a class of 25? How do we protect the 24 without infringing on the one child's rights and vice-versa?
One of my favorite songs is by musician Brandon Heath called "Give Me Your Eyes". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5AkNqLuVgY
We all need to see people through the eyes of God rather than our own eyes. We tend to color the world to make our lives easier. We must see what is missing. We must listen to the people who could actually help prevent these incidents...the people who spend time with these children every day...their teachers and their parents....and work to find real solutions, not more paperwork and bureaucracy. We must work on our communities and our school cultures to create safe places where people are valued and loved.
Sixteen years ago Joey and I married on the 23rd day of December. The date fell on a Monday night. We choose it because our siblings and parents were off work. We did not really want to make it a big deal. I think my dress was about $30, which we bought on the 22nd at Dillards. Our church friends gave me a darling little shower the week before the wedding. One of the gifts was from Mrs. Gaye Odom, who was around 75 at the time. She bought me a very racy little number, which she attached to a wreath and along with it was a little ornament from Hallmark making our first Christmas. I have no idea where the racy little number is, but tonight I unwrapped the little ornament for the 16th time. I smiled and thanked God for women like Mrs. Gaye in my life.
Our tree is not fancy. I actually bought some matching ornaments a few years ago to give the tree an overall cohesive look, but honestly our tree is a hodgepodge of love. We have ornaments the girls made in school. Most have pictures on them and I can see the metamorphosis of those precious faces I love so very much. I am thankful for teachers who took the time to capture memories for my family.
We have several traditions attached to our tree. Each time we travel on vacation we buy an ornament or two. Decorating our tree is a little memory walk through our travels from Disney to Washington, D.C. to Colorado. I chuckle at the precious ornaments I bought with my sweet friends, Monique and Kathryn, in Ruidoso, New Mexico. I remember Jacy and Kate crying over our sweet dog Marley dying on a vacation in Arkansas. I love the Pike's Peak ornament and the memories of a great trip with Stephanie Purdy. Each ornament allows me to remember how truly blessed we have been in our ability to travel.
Another tradition we have is we buy the girls at least one ornament each year to mark a special occurrence from the year. Of course we have the baby first Christmas ornaments, but we also have other fun ones. Jacy has one marking when she learned to read in Eve Frederick's first grade class. By second grade her teacher Jane Culivan had helped her learn to love to read the comics, so she has Charlie Brown ornament with Sally and Charlie reading the comics. Her middle school ornament is also Sally and Charlie with the teacher blah blah blahing in the background. Having taught middle school, I know they all hear us this way. Last year she finally fell in love with the best movie ever, A Christmas Story, so she received Ralphie in the Pink Bunny Suit and the Lamp ornament. She began high school this fall. I haven't bought her ornament yet, but I think I will be a little sad when I do.
Kaitlyn has a darling little labrador ornament marking the Christmas of 2004 when we bought Mayeaux's Cajun Noel or Ellie at our house. Ellie-girl moved into the place of our darling Marley, who left us on that vacation. Ellie loves Kaitlyn and waits for her each day to come home from work. Kate has two Cinderella ornaments, because she pretended half of her life to be a Disney character. She has a cute Sleeping Beauty ornament marking her first date. I haven't bought hers yet either, because I am not sure how to capture all of the changes she has had this year. She is a grown up and such a blessing. What do I buy to mark a beautiful soul?
My plan is to give each of the girls these ornaments as a wedding gift with the story of each ornament written down. However, I think I will be very sad not to have these treasures to place on our tree each year. I guess they will have to let me come help them with their trees.
I love Christmas even with all of the hustle and bustle, the season is always of time to reflect. The tree and all of the little pieces are like the stones in a labyrinth. I walk around and around the tree, placing each memory on the perfect branch. We laugh with each other remembering. Sometimes there is laughter and sometimes a few tears fall, but regardless we are so blessed. I am not sure where you are in your life this year, but know the child born in Bethlehem has precious memories of you and also great plans for your tomorrows. Mark your blessings. May God bless us everyone.
I am a teacher, which in a single word, sums up my passions and my belief in the future.