Today's guest post for Vivianna Week is from Sammy Goode. The story that she shares is so touching and so amazing that I actually cried. So I hope you have some tissues handy. I think that I would have been honored to have Sammy as Vivianna's kindergarten teacher. Thank you for sharing this Sammy.
I want to tell you a story…a story about the resilience of children…of how they can bear extraordinary pain and continue to love unconditionally.
Before I begin this story I want you to know three things: 1) this is a completely true story. I had the amazing privilege of being a part of this little girl’s life for one year, over 10 years ago and in all that time, she has never left my memory—never. 2) Her name has been changed—this “little” girl is now 16 and, while I am quite sure she would not mind her story being told, I have no way to contact her so we will respect her privacy by using a false name. 3) This is not a happy story in the classic sense, but rather a story of courage and strength and the amazing power of love.
I had been teaching kindergarten for 5 years in a large school in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Unlike some towns, this one was poorer than most—a sort of black mark on the county. I lived two towns away and am ashamed to admit that every time I crossed over the border of the town in question, I thanked god that I did not live there. The town reeked of poverty, cried out with neglected and forgotten people, and screamed for someone, anyone to notice. But this town also held some of the most precious children to ever grace the earth. Mary was one of them.
Mary was tiny for her age. As a five year old, she barely reached the middle of my thigh and she was painfully thin. No matter what season, Mary always wore the same thing to school, a short sleeved shirt that was gray with age, a dark blue cardigan and a pair of jeans with patched holes in both knees. On top of her neatly plaited hair sat a pink bow that had turned slightly gray with age. On her feet Mary wore a pair of sneakers that were taped with silver duct tape to cover the holes.
By spring of her kindergarten year, Mary’s grandmother would cut the tops of the shoes away, leaving a modified sandal—not to give Mary ventilation but so that her toes stopped hurting as the shoes were almost a full size too small, and Mary was not due for her new pair until August, right before the beginning of the next school year. The only big thing on Mary were her feet—they spoke of a little girl that should have long, graceful ebony limbs, made strong and sinewy from good nutrition. Should…but did not.
Every day Mary came to school and had free breakfast and free lunch. These two meals were most assuredly the only meals Mary most days. Mary’s grandmother worked the evening shift and left Mary in the care of a neighbor woman. The woman often sat Mary in front of the television and went about her evening, having already eaten her evening meal. Mary simply went without. At 9:30 in the evening, the neighbor would take the spare key to the next-door apartment where Mary and her grandmother lived and let Mary in, watch her get ready for bed and say goodnight. She would then lock Mary into the apartment and go next door to her own.
At about 2am, Mary’s grandmother would come home from work to a sleeping Mary, who had been alone for over 4 hours. Mary confided in me right before graduation that she often cried herself to sleep because she was so scared being alone. Remembrance of those little confidences cause guilt and bile to rise up inside me to this day. How did I not see…why did I not know?
The answer is perhaps because of Mary herself. You see every day Mary came to school smiling, happy. She would come into my room after eating her breakfast in the cafeteria and run over to me and hug me and say, “Good Morning, Mrs. G., I love you!” And ever morning I would smooth down her hair and fix her bow and stroke her thin shoulders and say, “Good Morning Mary, I love you too!” We would then start the day with the other students and as the morning progressed I would feel myself smiling whenever I would hear Mary’s breathless laugh, or sweet little giggle.
So by now, I am sure you are wondering many things. Perhaps you are asking where child services was or why I, as Mary’s teacher, did not intervene. Why didn’t the school report the grandmother? Why didn’t someone, anyone buy Mary a new pair of shoes for god’s sakes? Or give her grandmother a bag of groceries? Where were Mary’s parents and why in god’s name did this child have to suffer?
I wish I could tell you that I was Mary’s hero. That I made sure she had all the things I mentioned above and then some. I truly wish I could tell you that Mary’s life changed; that she did not continue to live in bone-crushing poverty. Unfortunately, if I did tell you those things I would be telling you a lie and at the beginning of this story I promised you the truth…and so here it is.
Mary’s father was in a maximum-security prison in the state of Maryland for stabbing his wife to death as Mary watched. It was Mary’s grandmother—the same grandmother who left Mary each day rather than turn her over to social services where she most assuredly would have become a shell of the child she was, that stayed her son’s hand before he plunged that same kitchen knife into his own chest.
They lived on less that $350 dollars a month and, while bone thin and small for her age, Mary went to the dentist every 6 months, was up to date on all her shots, and came to school clean and alert every day—this is what her grandmother could do for Mary and she did it fiercely, loyally, without hesitation. Mary may have had less than pristine clothes because her grandmother could not afford a washing machine and hand washed their clothing, but Mary had good sturdy clean clothing…and believe it or not…Mary was content with that.
You see, the one thing that Mary and her grandmother did have which trumped all else was love. Mountains of it…rivers of it…endless miles and miles of it. From the raw and devastating hurt of a life lived on the edge of an abyss, they made a small island that was all theirs. The love that shined in Mary’s eyes was there because even though she lay alone for those 4 hours each night she knew—she knew with a certainty beyond reason that at 2am her grandmother would come home and crawl into bed with her, and pull her close, kiss her gently and keep her safe the rest of the night.
Here is the real truth to this story, dear friends. It is not what we own, or where we live, or how we dress that makes a home…no…it is the love that permeates every corner of our lives. Love that wraps us up in it’s tender embrace and says, I will stand here between you and the world tonight and you will be safe…you will be loved…you will be my home and I will be yours.
Every weekday morning, Mary’s grandmother would get up and walk Mary to school. Two days a week, every week of the school year, I had front door greeting duty and morning breakfast monitoring. I shared these duties with other staff members. I remember remarking to a colleague about overhearing Mary’s morning ritual with her grandmother. That teacher said she heard the exact same thing when it was her turn to man the door. So I can tell you with certainty that when Mary and her grandmother reached the front door to our school they said the same farewell to each other every day…this is what they said:
“Mary, be a good girl today, learn everything you can and help your teacher.”
“I’m your sunshine.”
“Yes, girl you surely are.”
Dear, dear friends, that is love…pure and simple, yet profound and lasting.