I am an elementary school teacher. My school is located in the heart of the central mountains of Colorado, in a popular vacation area where the multi-million dollar homes are the rule, not the exception. Not more than a mile or two away from the homes with their man-made waterfalls in the front yard and ski-hill access in the back, are the subsidized
apartments with crumbling decks and peeling siding. Half of my school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and most of the other half qualifies as wealthy, an odd combination in such a small community.
I am a music teacher and a guidance counselor this year, an odd combination as well. I spend two days a week teaching music and the rest of it, including the two days a week that I am the music teacher, being the counselor.
They come to me as a steady stream in the morning, as soon as the bus drops them off in the front of the school. Many of the children are already crying, upset, angry, or depressed about something that may have happened that morning or the night before: a dad had overdosed in front of the children and had to be revived by paramedics, the babysitter was convicted of abusing sister , older brother was taken away in handcuffs for using his little brother and sister as punching bags. Anything that can be imagined, has happened. Things that can’t be imagined, will. I listen, I call parents and get cursed at, I call social services, I make sure what I can make sure of. And I tell myself and I tell my kids to hang in there, stay strong, it will be better someday. And miraculously sometimes it does get better. But for every child who does come to me in crisis, there are dozens more who won’t talk to me or who don’t have the words to tell. Those are the children I worry about the most; the ones I haven’t even met.
Of all of the hurts I have seen in the faces of my children, the most prominent and the most profound I have seen is the hurt that has been caused by a parent who is not around, whether physically or emotionally. Last week, a little boy came to me crumpled up and crying because his Mother had promised him that they were going to spend Mother’s Day together in the city, just the two of them. Now she informed him that she was going to Hawaii with her new boyfriend instead. It seemed like such a little thing; spending some time with a child on a day that honors mothers. Certainly, canceling some time with a child isn’t as hurtful or as damaging as forgetting to feed him, overdosing in front of him, or hitting him with a two by four. Certainly, except it all ends up having a similar effect; a damaged child. That look of loss and longing is one I see everyday, on faces of children, whether or not their lunch is free or whether it was made by the family’s cook or nanny. A look that is caused by parents who are unable to be around for their kids. Parents for whatever reasons; drugs, domestic abuse, ignorance or simple selfishness, unable or unwilling to spend time to get to know their children. Parents unwilling to sacrifice their own time and needs, to tend to their young. Parents who are not being parents.
I have a long drive home after school. It is a good thing because by the time I have crossed the mountain pass, most of my crying is done. I go home, hug my son, and vow to spend more time with him, doing what he wants to do. I’ll play “Star Wars” now, I’ll “shoot on him” as he plays goalie, I’ll let him mix the macaroni and cheese even if he gets it all over the stove top. I’ll let him inconvenience me because it is my job to make sure that he knows he is loved, even if it isn’t convenient. I remember a puppet show that some girls did about different situations that happen when you live in a home where there is separation or divorce. The mom puppet, when asked to play a game with her daughter, would say, “ In ten minutes.”
The little girl puppet then said to the audience, “she always says in ten minutes a bunch of times, and then she just forgets and I give up and don’t ask her anymore.” I never want my son to stop asking me.
Next week is the big school musical that we have been working on for months. Many of the parents will be there with video cameras and cameras flashing to capture their children singing and dancing and being stars.
As the musical director, I will make an announcement at the end of the show, thanking various people for various things, thanking the children for learning the songs and dances that they thought were so “uncool“, and telling everyone what a fabulous experience being their music teacher was.
I wish I could make an announcement as the guidance counselor as well. I would thank the parents, relatives and friends for coming to our production because by attending your children’s performances, however they may present themselves, you are showing them that they are important to you. I would thank the parents for giving their time to their children even when it wasn’t convenient and showing them that they are loved. And, finally I would tell them to make sure they don’t say, “in ten minutes” to every request their child makes of them unless they really show up in ten minutes. Because someday their children are going to just stop asking and their silence will say everything.
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