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A Tiny Gesture, A Giant Result

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

"I don't need any help, Mr. Wilde."

Stepping back to recover from the blunt delivery of this declaration, the surrounding silence soon allowed the ramifications of my student's frank response to crystalize in dizzying clarity. Her moment had arrived. Pencils sharpened, desks cleared, deep breaths in, and back out, the test was out. For weeks now, years really, she had been preparing for today. It was now or never.

* * *

Allow me to expand upon my surprise. Here was a student my coworkers had warned me to show added care. She has been wounded by years of let downs and set backs, they assured me, though she masks it well in feigned indifference. For as long as she can remember, test scores have told her she is too slow. Her circle of friends snicker in chorus each time she answers yet another question incorrectly. And her home life would break your heart.

For months now, I had strived to get through to her, an eighth grader still counting basic addition on her fingers. Making an intentional point to try to differentiate my instruction to her needs, I would not hesitate to offer words of affirmation, check in for added clarification, and go out of my way to give reminders regarding upcoming assessments.

Still no single day's interaction could come anywhere close to predictable. With her life's endless list of variables, one fleeting moment of misunderstanding could readily transform her from a beaming, carefree adolescent, to a defiant, disengaged occupier of a seat. Just two weeks prior, she turned in a quiz without having even written her name. No plea for a retake, no reaction when I assured her I would allow one—numbness.

It was not until the following day that I guardedly noticed a faint shift; a flickering spark just smoldering, begging for a breath of life. She returned to my class with unprecedented focus. No more constant questions just fishing to be handed the answer, no more excuses for having neglected to complete yet another assignment; she was determined. And as the days before our unit test dwindled to a close, the fruits of her newly concerted efforts had come to maturation.

Her classmates exchanged quick glances of disbelief as she earned the top score in our final review activity and she proudly proclaimed she had spent the weekend studying. She had something to prove and as I distributed the test, the tension was palpable.

* * *

Minutes ticked away, and her exasperated sighs increased in frequency. Her frantic rustling of papers made her ever more panicked stress bitingly known. Passing quietly past her desk, I whispered to just let me know if there was anything I could do to help.

"I don't need any help, Mr. Wilde."

She knew the steps forwards and backwards, recognized her most commonly made mistakes; she had put in all the practice, but still, she found herself not measuring up. Never enough. A final, defeated sigh signaled her complete surrender and with her test still unfinished, the clock still ticking, she set her head between her crossed arms in crippling frustration.

As her classmates obliviously continued their calculations, time slowed to a stop. The decision that lay before me was simple, but the effect anything but certain. Deep breathe in, and out. It was a chance worth taking. So I strolled over to my desk and picked up a Post-it pad. How best to say it?

Scribbling down the decided combination of simplicity and support, I whisked back by to place it on her desk, with her still none the wiser. Pause. As she read the note, her eyes peeked open, locking immediately upon the foreign note. And after a moment's hesitation, and a look of disbelief, she reached back for her pencil.

All tests were in, the class bell tolled, and my students gathered their things. From the front of the room, I watched with a now-warming heart as my student carefully secured the simple Post-it note on the inside cover of her binder. And without timidity, she spoke up before the friends she knew all too well might snicker.

"Thank you Mr. Wilde, for the note."

The next day's returned score would send her rushing into the hallway glowing with the joy of showing other teachers just what she had accomplished. The best score she had ever earned on a math test, second highest in her class. News would spread and with it congratulations. And as she greeted her mother at dismissal, "math" would be among the first words out of her mouth.

* * * 

She never said it in quite so many words, but we all tell ourselves the same lie at times. Indeed, we have been conditioned to recite it. Proudly, we proclaim that we are independent, self-sufficient. That no problem is too burdensome, no disappointment too defeating, no help needed. But one single moment's grace can expose the outright absurdity of this seasoned self-assurance. More practice problems, more friend requests, more hours of even the most heartfelt work can only go so far towards the realization of who we were made to be. No, to become that, we all need help; for we must believe the sometimes unbelievable. That we are worthy. Seen. Heard. Believed in. Beloved.

If I teach them nothing else, let it be this:

We believe in a God who believes in us. Who loves to call us His Beloved. Fashioned then in his image, let us never cease in striving to love as He loves us. Let us believe, just as proudly, in the worth of our sisters and brothers.

Even when they fall, lash out in pain,
and shield their faces for fear of ridicule;
day in and out, let us take the risk to tell them,
to show them—

You matter. More than you believe.


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