Sunday, January 11, 2009

Looking Fear in the Face

This is a story from my Aunt Coreen, shown here with my dad (Dennie). Coreen is a 4th grade teacher, totally devoted to her students, and a wise, intuitive woman. I love her story because it is about one of those beautiful, serendipitous moments that make teaching such an incredible life path. It is also a message of courage and hope in the face of loss.
A year ago our school adopted a new reading program that took us back to reading groups. I try to mix mine up well, so we get a wide variety of ideas from both girls and boys. I have spent hours reading the books ahead of time, so I know how to direct the discussion. I consider it poor teaching practice to go in cold. By this year, I had read most of the books in the program.

When I started my reading groups this fall, I noticed a big discrepancy between what the boys were interested in and what the girls liked to read. I took a chance and decided to have at least one all boy group and one all girl group. I could always mix them up later. It worked well from the beginning. Even though we were discussing topics like branches of government, the constitution, etc., each group took the information in different directions. We were all happy.

One week my girls: Betsy, Abby, Ally, and Ella finished ahead of the other groups. In a hasty decision, I handed them a new set of books I had gotten. It was called
Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Service. What could go wrong? It was a small book; I could have it read by the next time we met.

These four little girls are the gentlest, kindest, most sensitive students anyone could ever hope to have. They are funny, hardworking, and love to share their ideas and feelings. When we met, Betsy spoke up right away that it made her sad to read that Eleanor Roosevelt's mother had died when she was only eight, and that by the time she was ten, her oldest brother and the father she adored had died too. She was raised by her grandparents. Betsy looked sad, but concluded that her dad told her God has His reasons for things.

What I haven't told you is that Betsy's mother is dying of a terminal illness. It is progressing faster than expected. All the other girls know and let Betsy talk until she was finished. At the end, she concluded that her favorite part of the book was the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt at the end of the book. I agreed that that was one of my favorite quotes too. In fact, I've had the quote up on my refrigerator for years.

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do." -Eleanor Roosevelt

That night I wondered if I had done the right thing to hand Betsy a book about a girl's mother dying. Had I read the book first, I doubt that I would have taken the chance. The next time we met, Betsy told us how she had shared the quote with her mother and told her I had it on my refrigerator. Her mother thought she'd like it on her fridge too. I asked all the girls if they wanted a copy. They did. I went at recess to make five copies - one for each girl and one to hang in the classroom. We have a new copy machine. I am a mechanical idiot. By mistake, I ended up with 50 copies instead of 5!

The next day, I handed out the copies to my girls. They saw I had a "few" extra. Ella asked for one for her great grandmother who had to go into a rest home. Betsy wanted to give one to her grandmother who was having a hard time with her daughter's illness. One by one, each girl thought of people all over the country that they were sure needed a copy on their refrigerator, including the rest of the class.

What amazed me was that these four nine-year-old girls realized they had survived things that scared them or that were painful, and now they saw a purpose for it - it would help them with tough lessons ahead. Granted, only Betsy has to face the death of her mother, but the stories they shared were big for nine-year-olds. They taught me far more than I taught them that week, not to mention all the people who now have this quote on their refrigerator.

Maybe there is room on your fridge or file cabinet for this quote. Maybe you will meet someone who needs a copy too.

I don't know how, but I keep feeling that in some way Dennie's death was connected to this experience. These little girls reminded me that I must "do the thing I think I cannot do." I pray that, in return, Dennie's death will help me better help Betsy and all my students as they "take the next thing that comes along." May your fears and horrors be few and your courage and strength be great.


SerineKat said...

oooooo Good story. I remember one of the best books I read growing up was about Lincoln. It was a kids biography about him but I drank it up and was really shocked to learn he lived in a log cabin in the woods - poor guy... it made me more thankful for my situation and more aware of what you can achieve, no matter your background.

CRICKET said...

Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

caitsmom said...

Wonderful story and great quote.

Amy said...

That is a beautiful and inspiring story, thank you so much for sharing. The quote is awesome, and I plan to add it to my favorites.

Children are amazing sometimes.