The other night, I was talking with someone who mentioned something about a dark time in his life. After we went our separate ways, that phrase remained stuck in my mind and I started thinking about my darkest period, which was the year I spent teaching in rural North Carolina.
The next day, I pulled out my old journals and found the one from that time. I can’t tell you why I wanted to revisit that year and the doubt, difficulty, and depression that went along with it, but for some reason, I felt drawn to it.
I wrote a lot during that time, and at first, it was hard to read. I’ve come so far and done so much in the four or so years since then, and it seems like a completely different world. I was transported back into a world where I was truly unhappy and every day was a struggle. This was a world where I wrote about waking up on a Tuesday and how my first thought was about counting down the days until Friday, and my second thought was how immediately saddened I was by that. I lived in a world where I wondered every single day if what I was doing was actually making a difference or if my fears were true and I was hurting my kids more than helping them. My world was one where in 60+ hours of work per week, I might have gotten only five minutes of sunshine because of one positive comment or action that one of my kids did.
I still remember so clearly the first day I broke down at school. I had just come back from taking my kids to the buses, and it had been a truly terrible day. I turned the lights off in my room, went over to my library corner, curled up on the rug there, and just cried until I didn’t have any tears left. Ms. Wright, my angel, mentor, and fellow teacher, eventually came in and gave me a pep talk, but it did little to help assuage my fears and frustration.
With all this said, it may come as no surprise that I don’t think about this time of my life very often. I think about my students, who are in seventh grade now and each of whom I truly loved, and wonder how they are doing, but I don’t reminisce about my days in the classroom. Which may seem odd, then, that I deliberately sought out the journal that covers this time.
And then I came across an entry that made me start crying. Before I share that, though, I need to give you context. In my entire classroom, I had one white student. None of the other students liked Matt, and it broke my heart to see him so ostracized. I could never figure out if it was because he was white, because he was so poor (his pants usually had tears, his shirts were always stained, and one time I went out and bought him socks because he never had any to wear), because he had poor hygiene, or if it was actually his personality. I never met Matt’s mother and he didn’t share much about his home life, but I got the feeling he wasn’t showered with love when he was home, either. As a result of all this, little Matt didn’t think that he mattered and had such low self-esteem that it made my heart hurt.
At one point near the end of the first quarter, I had an idea. I started pulling him outside the classroom into the hallway while the class was working independently and I had him repeat these sentences after me:
I am brave. I am strong. I matter. I make a difference. I make this world a better place.
After that, I would ask him, “Do you believe it?” and I wouldn’t let him leave until he said yes.
When we started doing this little ritual, he would look around the hallway and make sure no one was within hearing distance. He would whisper the words after me so softly that I had to strain to hear them as he rushed through them. His “yes” at the end was more of a “yes-I’m-saying-this-because-I-have-to.” All together, it took maybe a minute and a half, and I made sure we did it at some point every day, even if it was right before he had to run to get on the bus. I had no idea if it would do anything, and goodness knows, it takes more than saying a few sentences every day to help someone see their value, but I figured it was worth a try.
On March 22, 2014, I was on a plane heading to northern California for spring break. I love flying in planes and it’s such a natural time for me to pause and reflect about whatever is going on in my life. In this particular entry, I was writing about things that were going better in my classroom, and then it turns to Matt:
Matt has grown in self-esteem, which was my goal for him. I got goosebumps on Friday when I was about to pull him off to the side for our ritual and he looked right at me and said, “Ms. Shea, I can do it here,” even though he was completely surrounded.
To hear his little voice, soft yet determined…”I am brave. I am strong. I matter. I make a difference. I make this world a better place.” When I ask, “Do you believe it?” And he definitively says, “Yes.” And I say I do too.
When we started doing that – in October? November? – I had to pull him in the hallway, with no one around and even then he’d whisper it…
The other day, he gave me a tight little hug out of nowhere and tells me, “I love you, Ms. Shea.”
In my quest to compartmentalize that year, I had completely forgotten about this. Thinking about Matt the other day and how much he grew during that year made me start crying because it reminded me that even in the darkness, there is always light. Light would never seem as bright if the darkness didn’t exist as a contrast. The darkness and hardships will be there, but just as surely, I can say that so too will the light rise to meet – and overcome – them. It’s up to us, though, to be aware and to appreciate the rays of sunshine as they crack through the darkness.
Life is never going to be easy. Like I would tell my students (and one of my favorite moments was at the end of the year when one of them parroted it back to me), “If it were easy, it’d be called kindergarten.” Well, life is not kindergarten. It’s much more complex, much more difficult, and ultimately, much more beautiful. And in the end, that’s what makes it so meaningful – and that’s why we keep coming back to it, day after day.