Just this morning while walking into a school to substitute, juggling my teaching bag, a coffee mug, water bottle, and my dress shoes, a young boy of about 9 ran ahead of me, opened the door and held it open for me to pass. I was so thankful, because I wasn't sure how I was going to juggle everything in my hands to get inside the building.
Being a regular at this school, I know for a fact that just a few short years ago, he would have never done that for anyone but himself. I'm not sure what exactly has changed in his life, but I have seen the staff at this school reach out and tuck him under their wings. It is great to have so many caring people leading by example.
I learned early from two great examples of how to give more than you receive. Growing up, my parents had a wood cutting business. This was a family affair. We all helped, we all benefited from the necessities of life: a roof over our heads, food on the table, and a warm bed to sleep in at night. Believe me, I tried to get paid, just like my own kids try now, but it wasn't happening. We would cut firewood and deliver it locally. The money was expected on delivery, but often times Dad would show up at someone's house and leave without the money. As I got older, I saw through his eyes when we came in the driveway for one of those kinds of deliveries: a worn out car, a house in desperate need of repair, a few kids who were need of newer clothes, a bath, and often food. Our family wasn't much better off, but these people were in need, and we had what we needed, so we gave.
Dad often got calls late in the day, usually just before dark from people who had no firewood left to burn that night, no other means for heat, and no money. Dad would fill up the trunk of the car with firewood from our own house supply and bring it over. I'm sure he never got paid money for those late night deliveries, but I know he got paid with other things. In addition to the knowledge of helping someone, there was also the random items. When the Cabbage Patch Dolls were the hottest toy in town, my parents didn't have the money to get them for us. There was a family that was in need of firewood. The woman bartered three handmade dolls (one for each kid) for her payment. To this day, I can tell you what each doll looked like and that each received so much love from their new owners. Best. Trade. Ever.
My mom would often come home from the grocery store later than she had anticipated because of some unexpected stranger needing help. She said that people spotted her from a distance, needing help with something from a higher shelf. This still makes me laugh because my mom was petite. She was so short that I was taller than her in the fourth grade. I mean, young grandkids marked their growing up as a right of passage when they, too, became taller than Grandma.
These strangers were not looking for a hand to help their reach. They were looking to tell a story, get something off their chest, or just for a friendly listener. After Mom would find a way to get the said item, each stranger would proceed to tell their story. She listened to people confess secrets, talk to her like a best friend (Imagine some of the things you tell yours. I shutter to think! Now, would you tell a complete stranger?) and ask advice. Mom said it like it was, putting the unavoidable truth before these people. I can just imagine some woman telling her about her unfaithful husband and asking Mom what to do about it. She would have said, "Get that jerk out of your life." Likely, she would have used more colorful adjectives to explain the jerk, but the answer would be simple, truthful, and obvious. She likely gave a little pep talk, too, "Pull up those boot strings and get it done. You are stronger than you think, and nobody has ever messed with a woman who puts her foot down." Mom said people were brave to trust a total stranger with some of the things she heard. I think that people just had a sense of who to trust, stranger or not, especially when kindness and putting others first is demonstrated in such an unusual place as a grocery store. I also suspect that most of these people knew about the white elephant that Mom often pointed out, but they need someone to say it aloud.
My parents have instilled in me the same sense of giving kindness without expecting something in return. Of all places, the grocery store is where I run into many strangers needing help. The older woman struggling to get her bags into her car? Check. The man who was having trouble walking into the store to get the electronic cart? Check. The woman staring at the can on the top shelf? Guess who reached up to get it and stayed ten minutes listening to her tell me about her deceased husband?
I'm a teacher. Isn't that one of the most giving jobs? In my first year of teaching, at tax time, Eric's eyes bugged out and he shook his head when he found out that I spent over a thousand of my own dollars on my students. The district I worked in didn't provide all of the things they needed, so I did. There was even some families who needed groceries, but I wasn't able to claim that on my taxes. Don't tell Eric! It didn't matter anyway. The government has deemed that the most giving job with one of the smaller incomes can not claim over $250. I've gone above this mark every year that I was working as a full time classroom teacher.
I just finished from a long-term subbing position. I loved it, but it was demanding and exhausting because of a few handfuls of difficult students. It was an uphill battle for the first few weeks because students suddenly thought that they didn't have to follow rules because their regular teacher was absent. The level of respect from these particular students was appalling. I didn't put up with any of it, and thanks to a wonderful principal and fellow staff who backed me, I didn't have to. (If you've read another blog post called Breaking the Silence, you know that I've experienced the opposite.) Students soon got the hint that they were going to get in trouble for PDA in the hall right in front of me, verbally abusing other students, being disrespectful to me, not following reasonable directions, and the list goes on and on. I spent so much of these few weeks with behaviors, both in class and on my own time, that I felt that I was not being fair to those students who were always doing the right thing.
So, after much time spent brainstorming, I spent more time making tickets and buying loads of candy. Those students who made good choices were rewarded every day with a piece of candy if they had the same two tickets at the end of the class period, if you lost one ticket for a behavior, congratulations! Your behavior was good, but no candy. Last, those who lost both tickets got to spend 10 minutes of their lunch time with me, copying out of a dictionary. Repeat offenders would have 5 minutes added onto the lunch detention for each occurrence and those who didn't show up for detention (I was not going to search the lunchroom for you) got to deal with the principal and would get a call home. Suddenly some of the other kids were working hard to get their small piece of sugar, too. The few handfuls of difficult students became one handful. And just like any other teaching position I have had, I had kids who loved me and the ones who do not. I wasn't trying to find friends, just create a respectable learning atmosphere, and it worked. Until the very last day.
To say that this day was not great is an understatement. Students who had changed their behaviors for the better reverted back to their old ways. It was a very long day, but bitter sweet, as I grew to love each of the students, difficult or not. I was relieved to not be mentally beat at the end of the day but worried about each one of those students, especially the ones I had made a positive connection with.
The reason for me telling you about this experience was for three reasons. One, to show the amount of giving of oneself teachers do daily, and two, to tell you about an unexpected gift from the mom of one of my students. Her daughter is a friend of my daughter, so we have a connection outside of school, and she also knew how trying things were from her daughter telling her and our own communication. She texted me the day after I was finished in this classroom and asked if I would be around the drop-off line. I told her I wasn't because I was dealing with frozen pipes and my car overheating on the way back from dropping the kids off at school (as if my first day couldn't get any better). She was kind and said she would pray that for me and that she had something for me. I was almost at my limit of stress and jokingly texted back that if it was chocolate cake or alcohol I would be excited. The next day she caught me at my car, handing me a gift bag. It was bitter cold and we were both on the go, so I thanked her and we parted ways. When I opened the bag, I was instantly overcome with emotion. Inside was a bottle of wine, a jar of chocolates and a heartfelt thank you card for subbing in her daughter's classroom, signed by both her and her daughter. The bag itself was so cute and fitting, with a woman relaxing with coffee and a book.
This gift probably wasn't a big deal for her. But to me, it was mammoth. It was this simple act that made all the stress from my crazy life disappear for a second, the pity-party that I was just about to have got stomped out, and I regained inner my strength.
I'm sure that it wasn't always easy to be kind or giving for my parents. In fact, sometimes I remember Mom getting irritated because she was in a hurry and just needed to pick up that one item and get home. I mean, she was a mom, busy and on the go with kids, husband, work and home; but she, like Dad, never said no to someone in need and never walked away from these people, even when they were busy. I know that it's not always rainbows and sunshine for me, but the giving of kindness is usually more valuable than the receiving.
Picture this: A young boy running to open the door and hold it for someone else, a child who picks up the paper on the floor because it needs to be picked up, even though she didn't drop it, a stranger visiting a school picking up a fallen poster and re-sticking it to the wall. Aren't these the little things that lead to huge-life changing things? It's thinking about others before yourself. Kids don't learn these things by themselves. They have role models that use themselves as examples. If we want this kind of world we need to act.
Be the role model and give kindness.
I didn't forget that I told you that there were THREE reasons I was telling you about my unexpected gift. Here it is: The prayer that my friend said worked. I army crawled under the garage in the crawl space with a hairdryer and heating lamp and fixed the frozen pipe. That wasn't even the hardest part for me. Before leaving to drop the kids off, I was terrified of getting stuck in the small space and having to wait all day for help. I thought about it all the way home, even when the car overheated, and was really working myself into a tizzy. My friend's text came through right after I got home- the one about being around at the drop-off line and that she was going to pray for me. Instantly I stopped thinking about the horrors of getting stuck in a small, frozen space under the garage, and instead focused on what needed to get done and I did it. Then I went inside my nice warm house, took a long, warm shower, put on some comfy clothes, and curled up on the chair with my coffee and a few of those chocolates. Life is good.