Thursday, December 25, 2014

"...all is calm, all is bright."

Merry and joyous Christmas to all!

We sat side-by-side at a small table in a corner of her special education classroom.  It was Monday morning and neither of us was quite awake and ready for the long week ahead.

As usual, we started by drawing simple shapes, to improve her hand control, and she copied my example in a step-by-step fashion.  One of her drawings started out looking like a house, turned into a little church, and that's when it all began.

"Had to go to church with my mom yesterday," she grumbled,  "thought we'd never get back home."

"I went to church, too,"  I replied, "I get to see all my friends at church."

She widened her eyes and stared at me like I had just dropped into her classroom from somewhere far away.  Silent, pondering this for a moment, she then asked, "You go to a white church?"

Oh, I've gone and done it now, I thought.  It's only Monday and I'm already deep into  treacherous waters at work because I'm sitting here discussing faith and race--with a student.

But, her question was yet unanswered so I said, "Well, it's mostly people who look like me but there are lots of people who don't."  Since she was young, a first grader, I didn't elaborate on the names of the countries my friends first called home--Burundi, Cuba, South Sudan, Honduras, Serbia, Nepal. She left the subject and returned to her drawing, probably needing time to sort through this new thought, that this boring, vanilla lady who worked with her every Monday spent Sunday mornings--and Christmas Eve--with people who didn't look exactly like her.

When I went to work for Richmond Public Schools in the late 1970's I was thankful to experience the ease in which teachers who didn't always look like me incorporated their faith into the classrooms.  One lunchtime I positioned a spoon in my student's hand prior to working with him on self-feeding.  His teacher, Ms. Ford, told me in a clear, directive voice, "Our class waits to pray before lunch." Yes Ma'm.  She thoroughly knew all her students, their families and their faith backgrounds; prayer before meals was non-debatable.

At the Friends Association in Creighton Court I often joined a special education class of preschoolers during their morning circle time.  One September day I lifted my student from her wheelchair and seated her in the circle of my legs on the carpet, so she could be closer to her friends and to help her clap along to the songs we'd soon sing.  Her teacher, Ms. Barry, whispered to me, "If you'd like to join us, we pray for the Lord to help us with our day."  My hands were busy supporting my student so, with every eye closed, I settled for wiping my tears away on both sleeves.

Josiah and I had a weekly appointment on the therapy mat at Amelia Street School.  His grandma knew that he would probably never talk or pick up his own cup, but she wanted his body to stay as straight as possible and not be bound up more and more by the spasticity that constrained his movement.  We practiced simple skills--using his "better" arm to touch a switch for music to begin, lifting his head against gravity to see the pictures in a propped book.

One chilly day I talked to him about a whole bunch of things as we worked together.  Other students and staff walked in and out of our room, yet we had many moments when there was just the two of us.  Chatting away I said, "Hey Josiah, do you know what holiday is coming up next?"  He nodded.  I asked, "Is it Thanksgiving?"  He shook his head, "No."

"Is it St. Patrick's Day?" I teased.  Another "No."  "Is it...Christmas?" I queried.

Josiah's face became animated and he vigorously shook his head up and down--"Yes!"

I laughed and said, "You're right, Christmas is coming."  Then I realized, I can ask him this question because his grandma had spoken in Josiah's yearly meetings about her faith and trust in God, so I asked, "Josiah, do you know Jesus?"

 He quieted his body for a second, quite a feat for his nervous system, then widened his eyes and lifted his eyebrows while nodding his head faster than I'd ever seen him move in all the years I'd known him, declaring, "Yes!"

I quietly said to him, " So do I."  And then we started to sing.

Folks hurrying down the long school hallway probably thought the faint notes coming from our room were just from a therapist using music to motivate a student to work hard.  But in that room, in a public school in Richmond, Virginia, one voice and two hearts were practicing for their parts in the heavenly choir, agreeing that, "...all is calm, all is bright."
2002 Photo by F.N.S.





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