It is obvious. We are hurting. I sit each morning sipping a mug of tea in front my laptop scrolling through the news and realize anew the world is wounded. From my place of privilege, I observe the current situation of civil unrest unfold in images and words. Brown skin, red stains, black paint, white banners, and the words, “I can’t breathe.” Acts of solidarity and calls for justice resound across several continents as we realize that no matter how far we’ve come we still have so much further to go. I mourn the absence of steadfast commitment to human dignity and loss of regard for the beauty of a beating heart and the individual soul that emanates from within. Where do we begin to heal the wounds of elitism become manifest in racial, social, and economic prejudice? Perhaps the answers to our utterances of desperation to a higher power can be found in shared places such as a third grade classroom.
It’s 8:10 on a Wednesday morning. I’ve already been up for three hours, arrived to work, prepped the boards in my classroom, and listened to my seventeen students recite their prayers in the straightest of a line they could manage. I stand in the doorway and usher in a string of eight and nine year old's bundled in winter jackets ready to begin the day. Towards the end of group comes Maya, eyes downcast. I sigh. I’m already ready for Friday and it looks like it going to be a rough one for her today. Pulling the hood off her head, I put my arm around her and wish her good morning. She shrugs me off. Lord please get me through.
What will it be today? A scene of instances previously played out come to mind. Maya sitting unresponsive at her desk for the first fifteen minutes of class with a blank journal open in front of her. As her classmates write one to two pages in improving cursive, Maya remains with her head on the table, expressionless, my kneeling beside her desk offering prompts and words of encouragement, not doing an ounce of good. Maya, alone at her seat with the hood of her winter coat covering her face despite the almost uncomfortable heat in the building. The rest of the rest of the class sits on the floor for guided reading and discussion of chapter eleven of Pippi Longstocking. Maya, working in her math group suddenly lashing out at another student for saying the answer before she does. I’m filled with a sort of dread.
Same line, same students, same door, another day. The hood of that awful leopard trim coat is up. I gently pluck it off and pat Maya’s back. This time, instead of cringing, she looks at me, her eyes pooling with tears and I see it: the bruise on her cheekbone and puffy, lacerated lip. My blood pressure rises as I say, “Tell me about it.” And she does. Maya’s older half brother had been expelled from school where he was living with his father and was now back with her and her mom. His struggles sought release in a blow to Maya’s face. What words of mine would suffice in such a moment? Six came to mind. “I love you and you matter.” My arms, wrapped tightly around my body in the futile attempt to keep myself warm that winter unraveled to hold the girl inside the ugly coat. Maya’s world had just become mine.
I would never be fully able to comprehend her experience; Maya’s girlhood so different from my own. But I could notice and compliment her fresh braids, oiled with coconut, every Monday. I could give her extra time in the line of students that crowded my desk each morning while I took roll to share their exciting updates since I’d last seen them fourteen hours ago. I could share enthusiasm about the new dress Maya’s mom was going to buy her that weekend and the Jamaican patty that was stowed in her lunch pail. I could tell Maya, the nine year old who stood almost eye to eye with me, how proud I was of her for mastering a new karate move in her after-school program. This was the world we shared.
One girl taught me what love does. Love is hard, it’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and love also heals.