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More Than a Name and a Voice

Some life lessons come at a time and place we least expect them. The night I met Jeffrey was one of those experiences. The evening began with my wife handing me an uncharacteristically short shopping list before I made the drive to our favorite suburban superstore.

After taking my time strolling through the outdoor grills and newest electronics, I loaded my cart with bags of frozen spinach, cartons of eggs, and other everyday items before making my way to the checkout lanes. The front of the store was not busy, and the wait in any lane was not going to be extended. Still, using sound economic reasoning I encourage in my students, I got into the shortest line and began to put my purchases on the belt.

After I moved closer to the register, I first saw Jeffrey parked nearby. Jeffrey was about 12, but he looked tall enough to have been 13 or 14 years old. His sandy-colored hair fell limply across a pale forehead rimmed by large, expressionless eyes. His face was long and narrow, and he had a slight overbite. It made me wonder if he had sucked his thumb. The chair he sat in looked something like a high-end baby stroller, except that it was taller and sturdier. The boy sat there alone, and he was very still for a time.

Looking at him and seeing no caretaker nearby, I swept the surrounding area with my eyes for someone keenly interested in his well-being, but I saw no one. My concern gave way to alarm when, as if someone had pressed a button, Jeffrey began to flail his arms and legs and moan. At first, I thought he would say something, but what came out sounded more like the muted protests of a fussy infant. I don’t know what handicaps Jeffrey faced, but my heart was moved for him at that moment. Pained by what I was viewing, I looked away just as a woman in the next checkout lane turned her head and noticed Jeffrey.

After a momentary glance, the woman’s head snapped back as if it were spring-loaded, and she suddenly became very interested in Wal-Mart’s policy for buying tobacco. Her eyes remained frozen on the placard while the cashier scanned and bagged her purchases. The shopper’s posture became rigid and uncomfortable, like someone trying to keep from being stung by a swarming wasp.

Watching this scene unfold, I began to feel rising anger growing within me, but any inclination on my part to feel critical of her was shot down by the sudden realization that I was no better. At that moment, I had a vision of what life must be like for the Jeffreys of this world, and I ducked my head in shame as I considered the rejection they must feel as people just like me avert their eyes. 

“God,” I prayed, “please let him know you love him.” Many times in my life, I believe I have experienced God’s subtle guidance, but in this case, the response was immediate, firm, and clear. 

“That’s why you’re here.”

I was dumbfounded. 

A Plea Without Merit

“God,” I thought, “you know I’m not good in this kind of situation,” but even as I spoke the words in my heart, I realized how hollow they were. As teachers, we are often called to step outside our comfort zones, and indeed one of those experiences led to one of the most satisfying episodes in my life as a teacher. Several years ago, I had a student I’ll call Myra in my senior economics class. Myra’s personality was what I call “the classic bad attitude.” On the first day of the course, she deposited herself in a seat at the very back of the room. On the occasions when she was in attendance, she remained there while sporting an uncomfortable look on her face and body language that said in equal measures, “I hate being here” and “leave me alone.” 

And leave her alone I did.

One day, after an extended absence, and to my surprise, Myra came up to my desk and asked if she could come in to do some makeup work; I agreed to help her the next day. When she arrived, she was sporting her usual dour expression and sat in the back of the room, where she began her makeup work in silence.

An Uneasy Start

Despite Myra’s presence, I was determined to keep up with my routine. So I began sorting through the many papers that littered the top of my desk, but try as I might, I could not ignore the fact that I was not alone in a small classroom that suddenly seemed very large. As the minutes rolled by, I began to sense a palpable tension in the air. Against a surging tide of discomfort and not knowing what to say, I forced the words from my mouth, “So, how are things going for you today?”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how stupid they must have sounded. Despite the many days Myra had been in my class, I had no relationship with this young lady and knew nothing about her. Replaying the words in my mind, they sounded like something a disinterested convenience store worker would say to everyone who comes to the counter. 

In asking that question, I was hoping for a perfunctory “Fine, thank you,” but Myra’s response was direct and honest. “Not very well,” she said, and her expression matched the statement. 

Knowing I could not leave the question unasked in good conscience, I inquired as to what was wrong. I suppose my awkward questions seemed caring and compassionate because this student, with whom I had hardly spoken for weeks, began to pour out the troubles of her life over the next 45 minutes. As the minutes passed, I sensed a split in the veil that separated us until, for the first time in that semester, we were genuinely speaking face to face.

By the end of that conversation, her makeup work sat undone, and scores of ungraded papers still littered my desk, but at that moment, neither mattered to me. Myra had many problems: a broken relationship with her single-parent mother, no permanent home, and no money, but perhaps most tragically, she had no adult in her life to console, encourage, or speak for her. Well, at least not until that day.

I gave Myra the $10 I had in my wallet and my cell phone number in case of emergency, but most importantly, I gave her my friendship and concern.

A Concerned Friend

The days after that experience only added to Myra’s problems. She became pregnant by a boyfriend who dumped her as soon as he learned of her condition. Coupled with the stress of a new job and being forced to stay with a different friend’s family each night of the week, this took its toll, but despite it all, Myra was a changed person in my class. She started coming to school more regularly, and the “leave me alone” expression was replaced in my class by a warm, infectious smile and a new eagerness to participate in class.

Unfortunately, she was still having problems in other classes and with life outside the school. Sometimes, she would leave letters for me in my mailbox at the end of the day. In these anguished notes, she detailed her hopes, fears, and life’s struggles. Despite having all the justification most people would ever need to give up, Myra wanted to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school. 

One of these letters closed with a line I will never forget: “Mr. Reding, you are the only person in this whole school that cares about me.” Those words haunt me to this day for two reasons.

The “At-Risk”

First, I know schools are often so overwhelmed by the sheer number of needy students that their concern becomes institutional in the sense that these students can lose their status as individuals, becoming instead part of an aggregation we call an “At-Risk” population. Second, I had to acknowledge that until I hesitantly reached out to her, I didn’t care much for those like the old Myra until the fateful hour.

It is painful to admit this today, but the truth was that I was great at loving and caring for the smiling, hard-working students who came to school every day and even the ones who were polite but reserved, but as for reaching out to the more difficult ones, I knew I had a long way to go.

In the grocery store that evening, I knew Jeffrey would be among the most difficult ones I could reach out to, but I knew I had to try. By now, the last of the groceries were being bagged, so I swiped my Visa card and hoped someone would come forward to claim Jeffrey and take him home before I could finish my transaction. When that did not happen, I double-checked to ensure I had all my bags before exiting the checkout lane.

Still seeing no one coming for Jeffrey, I turned my cart and moved slowly toward him. Stopping my cart beside him, I smiled, and in my most friendly, relaxed tone of voice, I said, “So, what’s your name?” The few seconds I waited for an answer seemed like an eternity, for Jeffrey neither moved in the slightest nor gave any indication that he even heard my question. After an awkward moment, I pushed my cart toward the exit and into the steamy summer night, wondering what lesson I was supposed to learn from that seemingly futile experience.

Getting back to my car, I was thinking about the boy I now call Jeffrey. I am not sure why, but I know I will never forget him, and I did not want to remember him only as “that boy in the wheelchair.” He needed a name and a voice to speak for him, and sitting behind the wheel of my car that night, I felt responsible for providing both.

The People in Our Path

I do not believe it was an accident that Myra was in my class or that Jeffrey was waiting for me at the end of a leisurely-paced shopping trip. Call it what you will, but I believe people arrive in our paths for a reason. As I reflect on the images of that summer night, I am aware that Jeffrey, sitting alone in his wheelchair, needed much more than I could provide. But in our classrooms, that limitation can be eliminated if we allow it. 

I do not write these words as someone who has arrived at the place I aspire to be, but I am gaining a better view of that place, thanks to people like Jeffrey and Myra. Since my pre-service days as a university student, I have heard some teachers say things like, “I am there to be their teacher, not their friend.” I question why those two roles must be mutually exclusive whenever I hear such statements.

As I watched Myra walk across the stage to receive her diploma many years ago, the smile on her face and the bond we shared filled me with an inexplicably warm feeling. Looking back, I now realize that was God’s subtle way of saying, “That’s why you’re here.”

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