Love is the Answer

I watched the on-line news coverage tonight featuring Torrence Collier, of Baie Verte Peninsula, Newfoundland. I watched and I listened to this young boy, in between the ages of my own two oldest daughters, as he describe what it feels like to be the only black child in his town of Westport. The only black child in his school. I took note when he began to talk. Because being the only one who’s different is one thing: being bullied for that difference is quite another. My heart broke for him as he began to share what it was like to be bullied, what it was like to be assaulted. How scared he was. How afraid.

“I feel horrible about myself, and sometimes I wonder if they’re right. If I am all those things they call me.”

That this is happening is a travesty. That this is happening at school is both a travesty and completely unacceptable. It shouldn’t be. School shouldn’t be the breeding ground for hatred. But the sad truth of the matter: it sometimes is. And it will continue to be that unless we as people (students, teachers, parents and concerned citizens) start to realize what is missing in our schools. What is necessary for our schools to heal and recover from this sickly disease. We will not be what we were meant to be unless we realize what is the one thing that must be prioritized if we are ever to see change.

Nelson Mandela (1994) had this to say about love, with regards to his oppressors:

I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”

Love cannot be taught, but it can be fostered. It cannot be bought, but it can be grown. Love cannot be forced on anyone, but it can overcome even the hardest heart and break it in two.

Love conquers, gently, persuasively, perfectly.

And the purest examples of love shown down through the ages, chronicled in history and lived in the flesh, exist because a foundation of perfect kindness had first been laid. Jesus- the perfect example of loving, active gentle kindness. And from His example, one can follow a trail through the ages of lives touched and urged to live better. Bolder. More beautifully. And that this kindness works so well is for the simple fact of the matter: that kindness is active. You have to DO kindness. It has to happen. And it is exhibited in countless ways:

Through exercising patience.

Through offering grace.

Through showing mercy.

Through understanding.

Through care and concern.

Through attentiveness.

Through listening.

Through forgiveness.

These are skills, these are gifts. And for those who display them on a regular basis, you can be sure that these fruits of a spiritual life are not acquired easily. One must make it a mindful habit, a prayerful habit to make these a priority. They are gifts one must never take for granted.

But when they are given priority, there is no end to the possibilities for hope. For change.

Our lives are better when we live them connected to others in positive, healthy ways. And when we see people for who they truly are, we come to better understand why love is all the more important. Why love is the answer.

It always has been- and it always will be.

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Lessons Learned {during playground duty}

His little body tells me he means business. He power-walks away from me, even as I call out his name: once, twice, thrice. And then some more. He hears me, but he’s trying not to listen. It is apparent that he perceives my constant calling for he moves purposefully ahead, making an ever-widening arch as he moves around the periphery of the playground.

Like he has somewhere to go.

I follow, but I do not run. And as I go about this awkward pursuit, I continue to call. While he continually moves out of my reach. We continue this dance-like charade until I get close enough for him to hear the calm in my voice. The care and the compassion. I call out again, indicating my desire to talk it out. Indicating my desire to listen. And this time, he allows me to catch up to him. I see, as I near, that he is fearful. Anxious. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even half over. He tells me what has happened. And indeed, his story matches up. He admits that first his mistake was accidental. But then he says “the bad stuff came.”

My heart aches for him.

It is a long road to travel when you are only five. Lonely and anxious and unsure.

Our schools are bursting with children that present with different needs and requirements. Some children come hungry: we feed them. Some children come filthy: we wash them, or teach them the ways to clean themselves. Some children come with precious little of material value to call their own: we provide clothing, backpacks, shoes, mittens, skates, splash pants and the like. Not to mention all the other stuff we offer that would seem to define us as teachers: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic. But what of the children who come lonely…what is there for them?

What do we offer the lonely?

The reason I feel I have stayed with teaching, why I continue in the classroom- has been for the little moments I have been given in which to gaze uninhibited inside the heart of students like the Boy in my story above. When the guard is lowered and I am allowed privileged glimpses into the depths of the soul: my own soul is fed. I am redeemed. Liberated to be the teacher I dream of being. For I want nothing more than to share in the journey. To share in the process of discovery. It is what keeps me here, inside the school milieu. It is what I love.

I have felt of late a certain sense of lacklustre in my teaching. A loss of passion. As an educator, I have been going through the motions, for lack of better words. The same routines, the same schedule. Even speaking the same uninspiring words as I facilitate learning from the teacher’s seat on the worn, blue mat. And although there has been nothing changed as far as the demands of my job, something has certainly changed somewhere. Somehow.

Within.

True, life is certainly busy and hectic, but not more so than any other moment. What I believed has changed is me. I have felt like I am losing interest, losing a sense of the significance for why I am here. For why I am where I am. I have lost my sense of place. And this loss has had the effect of causing me to feel that I am just putting time in each and every day. Biding the time until the day is over. Believing somehow that this is all there really is.

Until Friday. Until I looked into those sad, brown eyes last Friday.

The turning point for me personally was the opportunity I had to turn a mundane chore into an opportunity for possible transformation. And the while one would hope for transformation for those you assist in learning and growth, the real transformation was for me.

To elaborate. Outdoor duty is a time when teachers take their shift of playground supervision. It is invariably a time when tattle tale-ing hits with full force, while accompanying this rite of childhood is a fair bit of injury and sometimes blood. Two weeks ago, a little girl who already had a broken arm fell off the monkey bars on my watch. I had spoken to her just moments before, turned my back, and then she climbed up the monkey bars and promptly fell to the ground. One never knows what will happen on the playground.  It is both an exciting and terrifying venture at one and the same time.

Recess playtime is a bit unconventional when compared to school norms. Because the playground is a place where risks can be taken, where learning is done through play, where social interactions are at the forefront and where inhibitions can be lowered, play offers opportunity that the classroom doesn’t. But it is also a place where children can feel more vulnerable, for various reasons. Given that the duty teacher is only one person, and that the playground is a big place with seventy or eighty little people running around, a lot can go right. But often even more can go wrong.

What I have found about recess playtime is this. It is the greatest opportunity for me as a teacher to observe children in their most natural state. And added to this: I am at my most relaxed, feeling none of the pressures to meet outcomes or standards or to teach to differentiated learners. Kids love to play in all the same ways. It is very freeing as a teacher to be witness to this wonder. But my greatest joy has been in helping children who need a little extra love and understanding. It’s why I love duty the most.

When I see the opportunity to connect with children and use this time to enable them in their growth and development as individuals, I take it. I use duty to do what I really love to do: help children grow their hearts. That might be allowing an anxious child to travel with me around the playground, holding my clipboard. It might mean taking the time to settle a disagreement between two or more friends. Or what it is often becoming is a chance to observe students who are finding it difficult to connect with other students and thus making this time of supervision a chance for me to help these students solve both little and big problems, as they arise.

I’d like to say that the Boy had a better day after he and I chatted. I’d like to say that he came to a better understanding of himself and others as a result of the incident on the playground. I’d like to say that he resolved to find a way to connect more easily with other children and that he let down his defences. And I’d dearly like to say that the students involved with him were willing to wash the slate clean. I’d like to say that our infrequent encounters on the playground paved the way to continuous, visible growth in emotional and mental well-being for this young child. But the truth of the matter is: he had a very difficult afternoon, as I came to find out in speaking with his teacher.

And so it goes.

But this I know: no kindness goes unnoticed. And no thoughtful, caring gesture is soon forgotten. There will be other Fridays to come. More duty days in which to build his trust. And while there doubtless will be more incidents and pursuits, there will be small victories along the way. It’s a journey with a climb. Or maybe this process of learning is more like a building a house on a solid foundation. We are laying the framework, he and I. And it is not a race to perfection.

It’s a slow and steady process to building more awareness and understanding. And we all know- anything worth building takes lots and lots of time.  And love. Must never neglect the role of love in building the life of a child.

It’s what really matters.

A Message to Kids Who Are Being Bullied

I saw you there today- so happy. Having fun with your friends. Being yourself. I admit, I was busy going over all of my kids’ routines- so I didn’t get to watch every single part about your practice. I didn’t get to see all your moves and tumbles. Cartwheels and handstands. Didn’t get to watch you as you perfected your moves for the upcoming competition during today’s lunch-time practice.

But out of the corner of my eye- I caught you running down the mat towards the vault- a big smile on your face. It was joy. Pure bliss. I know you love gymnastics club, and I know that it feels like home. I hope it is home- that is will always be a place where you feel welcome.

Later on, after gym mats had been stacked away and lunch sacks zipped open, I popped by your classroom. You were having lunch; I was checking out the outrageous costumes your class was wearing. I had a laugh with one of your classmates as he showed off in front of the chalkboard.

I love you kids. I really do.

It is such an honor that you all let me drop in from time to time- shooting the breeze. I’m not your teacher. But I love you like I am.

Just as I was about to leave the room to go back to my work for the afternoon, you looked at me excitedly and said, “Mrs. Gard, I can’t wait to show you my back walk-over next practice.” And right at that moment someone else was talking to me too. Not wanting to interrupt the flow of that prior conversation, I let him continue while you were left looking at me expectantly. It might have seemed like forever, but it was just a moment. A brief hesitation. And in that one instant before I had time to process what was coming next- before I had time to respond: someone else leaned over towards you- in front of all your friends. And that someone looked you in the eye and said, in as disgusted a tone as can be mustered: “She doesn’t care about your stupid back walkover.”

I don’t know if your face fell. I don’t know if inside you crumbled into tiny little pieces. I don’t know how many times you’ve heard those words before- I don’t know if you even believed them. But I got the feeling that this might not have been the first time. And in the instant it took to process what just had happened- a million memories flashed through my mind. A thousand words came tearing back into my memory. Voices from the past and present were screaming in my head, words sounding much like those said to you:

You don’t matter.

Who cares.

You’re worthless.

No one cares about your stupid life.

And in that instant it took for me to register your face with those emotions of mine. In the instant it took. I made a conscious decision- if it was the last thing I ever did on this earth- to look you in the eye and tell you. That someone cares.

I CARE.

I did tell you. I stopped everything else I was saying- stopped directly in front of the class. Because at that moment in time, there was no other conversation as important to me as this one. There was nothing else that mattered more to me than you. And I looked at you with all the care and all the love and all the concern and all the emotion I could muster- feeling like I was you- for I once was. Maybe I still am. And as I experienced that wave of emotions wash over me, something happened. I saw you. I really saw you.

Even now tears fall freely as I write. I told you with my heart that I do care about the absolutely amazing stuff you do. I told you I care about that back walker-over. And I told you that I can’t wait to see you do it for me at our very next practice.It’s going to be amazing. I just know it. If I could go back in time again, do this all over again, I would tell you this: I would say in front of your whole class how proud I am of you- of all of you. My kids. How proud I am of athletes who give things a chance, who take risks, who make mistakes and get back up again to do it once more. Even when they fall. Even when they find themselves faced with overwhelming odds. I am proud of kids who are willing to try. Kids who are not afraid to be themselves. And you know- a coach can learn a lot about life on the gym floor. Can learn a lot from watching kids. You might find this out someday. You might become a coach yourself.

And if you do, you might come to discover, as I have, that who we learn the most from is our kids. Our students. The ones we teach, coach, laugh with. The ones we love. For what I’ve learned from all of you is that it’s okay not to be perfect at something so as to give it a go- that having fun is the very best reason to try out a sport. I’ve learned that perseverance is the goal, not perfection. I’ve learned that people bring the best they have each day they show up for practice- and it’s my job as your coach to honor that.

And I’ve learned that kids are amazing, resilient, incredible and helpful. I’ve watched as your teammates have helped one another develop their skills. Seen kids helping kids in ways that inspire me beyond what words I could ever pen right now. Because each day you all come to practice, I have seen everyone having fun- each and every day. All of you. And as your coach, I can’t ask for anything more from all of you than that.

Except for just this one thing: Don’t ever- EVER let anyone define your worth. That comment today? It came from someone who might also be dealing with their own stuff. Don’t hold it against them. They brought their best today too- it’s just that each of our ‘best’ looks a little different. Don’t let those words define you. Don’t let them hold you back from being beautiful, amazing you. Don’t let anyone ever take your incredible value as a person away from you. Ever.

Know this for sure: you are worth it. I believe in you.

Joy found in second chances…

This past week, I read a note from a friend in which she stated she would not be allowing two former classmates from university access to her group of friends on Facebook due to the grief these girls had caused her in university.  She actually posted this note as her Facebook status, thus publicly denying these girls friendship with her in such a way that would allow anyone out there in Cyberville to be privy to this knowledge.  I was awed by her courage to publicly state her feelings in such a raw and open way.

I read the comments that followed her status update, much of it self-righteous spiritual jargon preaching that she forgive and love her enemies.  Some comments were combatitive and others were humorous.  One lady said it was all “much ado about nothing.”  I was not sure how I felt on the whole issue of holding onto and acting upon strong feelings that were born in the past with regards to how they play out in the future.  That is, until tonight when I was on Facebook myself.

I started thinking about my own Facebook friend list, as well as my real-life friendships, and I got to thinking: what if everyone I had hurt or offended in high school or university and beyond, for one reason or another, held those offenses over my head.  Where would I be now?

In particular, I think of one girl with whom I have been in contact with quite regularly, of late.  She and I were never close in high school, and I am afraid I may have not given her much of a chance back then.  I was too busy pursuing the popular guys and girls and trying to fit in with the cool crowd.   I look back and wonder: how many toes did I step on while trying to push my way up the social ladder?

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity of time and space within which to mature.  I am a different person than I use to be.  I think of how insecure I was back then, and I realize that much of the pain I caused others was due to my own feelings of inadequacy.  I did not feel good about myself, and there were times in the past that I acted thoughtlessly towards others.  Often those that belittle others have themselves been belittled.  Those who tease have themselves been teased.   Those who are careless in friendship have at sometime been tossed aside by another.  Those who bully were once the victim.

I would like to believe that in my own case, the times I may have been careless with another classmate’s feelings were few and far between, as I have actually never been denied any of my Facebook friendship requests.   And in real life friendships, I am constantly critiquing myself as to how I am present in each moment I now live.  We like to think the best of ourselves.  But if I were to ever receive the denial, it would be food for thought and good reason to offer a heartfelt apology to that one from which the message came.  I can relate to those on both sides of this story: both the bully and the victim.

I have three beautiful girls.  One of my girls created a book last week in which she drew pictures of girls she thought were weird and ugly.  She actually labelled one of these pictures with another girl’s name.  I was absolutely appalled.  I showed my husband and together, we had a SERIOUS discussion with her about why this was not acceptable and how it would not ever happen again.  EVER.   She cried.  I would like to think the message was driven home with her that nice girls do not treat people like that.  True beauty comes from within, and those who count themselves as among the beautiful must have a soul that exudes grace and dignity and acceptance towards others.  I want my girls to be this kind of beautiful.

We are all in this social circle that turns around and around, and “what goes around does come around” as the cliché goes.  We, ourselves, have times of feeling powerful and times of feeling powerless.  We can be kind and we can suffer pain from the unkind hand of another.  We can feel anger and we can feel joy, both at the hand of those we call our friends.  But so can they feel all of this and more, these ones whom we call friends, when the shoe is worn on the other foot.

When we walk in another’s shoes, we come to see that what they feel and who they are is not really that much different than who we are ourselves.  And it should serve as a reminder that people are more like us than we think they are.  We are all in this together.  Inside us all beats a heart made of the same stuff, of flesh and blood.  We come from the same darkness of a mother’s womb and emerge into light by the same struggle.  We are beauty from ashes.  We are body, soul and spirit.  We are a reflection of the image of God Himself.  And we are special and wonderful and rare.

And if that is all true, than most everyone deserves a second chance.  And so do we.  And so do I.

Can pain bring joy?

We often are witness to those painful aspects of life, those which bring hurt and damage to both the victim and the inflictor.  The former, intertwined in a web with the latter, woven around injury, only to be confounded by an inevitable tangle of lines and curves.  It can be hard at times to see the beginning point of this labyrinth, as often is the case when a web becomes intertwined with debris and the remains of the wreckage.  The symmetry vanishes.  Things fall apart.  Such is the way of life sometimes.

An anxious little one told me from the get-go that his belly was sore today.  Could he go home please?  I knew immediately why.  It was the “incident.”   The violation that occurred yesterday.  He was not overtly referring to what had happened, but a teacher knows these things without even being told.  I read fear all over his little face.  I could have sobbed myself for his loss of innocence, the free-spirited clarity of yesterday.  I wished for nothing more than to go back in time and reverse those memories, subliminal as they might be even at this given time.  For him, they were still there.  Below the surface.

How tender are one’s feelings, how easily bruised.  How raw our emotions, and how heartfelt the apologies that ensue.  To witness, one who hurts another and to see the aftermath, the collateral damage for both parties involved.  It is painful.  It hurts.  We all feel the searing knife.

Another little one sat in front of me later in the day and cried.  He, the inflictor.  He thought he would be sent away, never to return.  Someone would come and take him far away because he had acted wrongly.  It was then, when the tears welled up in his eyes and burst forth, that the dam of my heart too broke for this little one.  My Mommy heart wished to do nothing more than comfort and love away the pain, the memories.  I could not change the actions, the course of time already had unfolded and time can never be reversed.  The damage has certainly been done.  But now is a time for forgiveness and a new beginning.

This change inside, the pulling on my heart strings, surprised me.  Moments before, I had sensed no pity from myself toward this little one, and might I say I had even felt slight revulsion toward the child.  And yet, as I watched the course of an interrogation take on a life of its own, I experienced something akin to understanding.  This I understand: to be a pariah is to feel loneliness, fear and isolation.  To be without.   To be on the outside, yes, for some good reasons.  Yet there are decisions in our lives of which we are unable to fully have control.   Sometimes our path is already laid before us, it was chosen for us by others.  We can do not, but to take the path down which we were destined to sojourn, no matter how unfortunate that choice might be.