Category Archives: encouraging words
For you are our glory and joy.
1 Thessalonians 2:20, RSV
I’d like to think that I’m Mrs. Thelma Hill’s glory and joy. At the very least, I owe her a lot. Mrs. Hill, who taught English at East Denver High School, died years ago, but something of her spirit lives in me.
Like Mrs. Hill, I stand at the door of my classroom as students come in, barking “Spit!” if I see a student chewing gum. (I already have enough gooey globs ground into my floor, thank you very much.)
Like Mrs. Hill, I appreciate—and write— the enigmatic snippets of seventeen-syllable poetry known as haiku. (Unlike Mrs. Hill, however, I do not have a Siamese cat named after the Japanese poetic form.)
And like Mrs. Hill, I try to instill in my students a love for literature by reading only the best of books aloud to them, and encouraging them to check out books from the school library.
“I want to be a writer,” I confessed to Mrs. Hill one day as we sat on her living room floor, sipping iced tea and listening to Mozart. (I was one of a handful of students she invited into her home.)
“You can do it,” she said.
Those four words of hope have sustained me for many years. When I abandoned my dream for a while, thinking it was foolishness, I seemed to hear Mrs. Hill reminding me: “You can do it.” When I finally started writing again and rejection slips outnumbered letters of acceptance, I could hear her encouraging me: “You can do it.” And when an unexpected divorce shattered my heart and my self-confidence, leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to write—or love—again, I felt Mrs. Hill cheering me on: “You can do it.”
Mrs. Hill slipped into the twilight zone of Alzheimer’s disease several years before cancer finally claimed her life. If she were alive today she’d be pleased, but not surprised, to know that I am living my dream. More than a dozen magazines have published my work and I’m currently writing an inspirational book for my colleagues in the teaching profession.
When I had an incipient vision for my future, Mrs. Thelma Hill’s simple words of encouragement inspired me to sharpen my focus and to persevere in spite of setbacks.
During the remaining days of Advent—and for the rest of the school year—will I inspire my students as Mrs. Hill inspired me? Whose life can I change with a simple word of encouragement? Which student will learn from me that a setback is not the end of the world, but an invitation to create an even better world?
Who will become my glory and my joy?
Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they only hated him the more.
Genesis 37:5, RSV
Dreamers are often misunderstood. Joseph was a dreamer, and his father’s favorite child. Joseph’s brothers hated him because of his favored status, and because the family patriarch had given him an “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat” as a token of esteem and affection. Joseph’s brothers hated him even more when he began to share his dreams with them. They hated him so much that they finally sold him into slavery and told his grief-stricken father that he was dead.
Maybe it’s safer not to dream—or at least not to share those dreams with anyone else. Why risk mockery or even death?
Teachers can be dream-killers or dream nurturers. Dream-killers discourage, rather than encourage, children. Dream-killers scoff and mock and deride. Dream-killers say, “Forget about it. You don’t have what it takes.” Every child has probably had at least one dream-killing teacher in his or her life. Fortunate are those who also have had at least one teacher who knows how to nurture dreams.
When I first started teaching, I came up with a signature that I add under my name; it goes out on every e-mail I send: “Weaving Dreams, Telling Stories, Changing Lives.” That’s not just a slogan devised by some slick advertising agency on Madison Avenue, it’s my life:
Your dream is safe with me, child.
I will never mock you or deride you.
I will never sneer and say, “Forget it.”
You will never hear me scoff, “You’re not good enough,
not smart enough, not strong enough.”
You’re as good as any other dreamer.
You’re as smart as you need to be to make
your dream take shape.
You’re so strong you can hold on to your dream
for as long as you need to,
no matter what happens,
until that dream comes true—that’s how strong you are.
Your dream is safe with me, child.
Your dream is safe with me.
Many people think that Lent is primarily a season of deprivation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common question.
I prefer to see Lent as a season for dreaming, as a time for envisioning new possibilities and looking forward with hope to the day when those possibilities will become realities through planning and hard work.
When I return to my classroom tomorrow, one of the first things I’m going to do is say to my students is “What’s your dream?”
And then I’m going to listen, not just with my ears, but also with my heart.
As I walk my students to the bus at the end of the day, N-Girl hands me a note. I smile and slip it into my shirt pocket. I assume it’s one of those little I’m-glad-I’m-in-your-class notes.
After the kids are safely aboard the buses, I open the note. “Dear teacher,” it reads, “I don’t like this class or school becaues I have no firend’s.”
I feel as though I’ve been stabbed in my heart. Clearly community-building must become one of my top priorities again. It was my major objective the first days of school, when I introduced the concept of CARE to my students:
Come prepared to learn.
Always do my best.
Respect myself and others.
Excellence is my aim.
The first couple of weeks, I emphasized the “R” in CARE—respect. I gave examples of respectful behavior and its opposite. “Are you showing M-Boy respect when you say that to him?” I’d ask. “Thank you for showing respect by picking up A-Girl’s pencil for her.”
But preparing lesson plans, teaching and assessing student learning soon gained the ascendancy and the concept of creating a caring community languished. Besides, (I must have reasoned subconsciously), these kids have been together all through elementary school. They know each other. They get along fairly well together. Not to worry.
Then N-Girl enrolled in our school. She came from another district far away. That she is cheerful and helpful and vivacious makes no difference to the rest of the class. They shun her and look for reasons to tattle on her.
N-Girl is an outsider.
The pain of the outsider became clearer to me when I read “Coming Out in Middle School” in the New York Times Magazine online. Writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis introduced me to “a 14-year-old named Misti — who came out to classmates at her middle school when she was 12 and weathered anti-gay harassment and bullying, including having food thrown at her in the cafeteria.” N-Girl came to mind.
Sexual orientation is probably not the issue that’s causing N-Girl to be on the outside. But after reading her note, I’m sure that her pain is just as real as that of the girl in the New York Times story. I wouldn’t be surprised if she sometimes feels as though her classmates are throwing food at her.
I can’t force the other kids to befriend N-Girl. I can, however, see to it that they treat her with respect when she’s in my classroom.
“Children learn what they live,” writes Dorothy Law Nolte in her poem of the same title. “If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.”
One of the most important lessons I can teach my students is not how to perform the correct order of operations in a mathematical problem, but to show kindness and consideration to others, even if they don’t particularly like them.
We don’t have to like someone to be kind and considerate to her. We just have to do it.
No more outsiders.
Teachers never know when a student is going to connect something she or he has learned with something else. It’s often a surprise when it happens.
Today my seventh-graders and I were reading from Scott O’Dell’s Sing Down the Moon, and came across this sentence: “Soon after the moon set we halted and made camp.”
“What does halted mean?” I asked. “Can someone give me a synonym?”
“Halte!” J-Boy shouted, remembering a foreign word from our reading of Number the Stars last year. (It was a book that all the sixth-graders, including J-Boy, professed to hate because they said it was boring.)
“Exactly!” I said. “Halte is the German word for Stop! It’s like our English word halt—which also means stop. To halt and make camp is to stop and make camp. Good job, J-Boy!”
Connections. Sometimes students make them and sometimes they don’t.
But when they do, it’s an occasion for celebration.
Because of excruciating back pain, I’ve been out of my classroom for the past three days. That’s long enough. In fact, it’s too long. I can hardly wait to return on Monday morning—even if I have to hobble. I miss the kids. Terribly.
So much can happen in three days.
According to the biblical story of creation, green growing things appeared on Earth on the third day: “…the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind…” (Genesis 1:12).
I think of my students as plants that need to be watered with praise and nourished with kindness so that they will grow and develop.
For three days, I haven’t been in the classroom. For three days, my students have been without water and nutrients. For three days, they have had to fend for themselves.
Plants that have to fend for themselves don’t often thrive. Weeds may creep in and suck away essential moisture and nutrients. Careless passersby may trample delicate plants. Thieves may jump over the garden wall and steal fruit. Untoward things are bound to happen when the gardener absents himself from the garden—even for three days.
That’s why it’s so important for me to return on Monday, even if I’m still experiencing twinges of pain in my lower back. I don’t want my students to wither. I don’t want the weeds of apathy to steal their joy of learning. I don’t want their knowledge to be stolen like ripe fruit.
I am a gardener. I belong in my garden.