What Grown-Ups Do
I NEVER KNEW HER NAME, but she sat there wiggling in a Tweety Bird sweatshirt. School in Loltuleilei, Kenya, was supposed to start at 6:00pm for the shepherds, but my little friend couldn’t tell time, or didn’t have a clock–or maybe didn’t care. Whatever it was, she showed up at the Friends’ church every day by 5:15pm.
I figured, as long as she was there, I might as well teach her something, so I wrote on the chalkboard “8 + 3.” Then I turned around, raised my eyebrows, and passed her the chalk. (We didn’t share a language, little Tweety Bird and I.)
She drew eight circles, then three more, than wrote “ = 11.” Her eyes shone.
Okay. I tried “8 – 3.” With a grin, she drew eight circles, crossed out three, and wrote “ = 5.” She had a little swagger in her step. She knew she impressed me.
So I taught her to multiply.
Kristina, age seven, had a reputation as a kid who didn’t try. She didn’t make trouble, but she couldn’t read and couldn’t do math and didn’t speak much English—not uncommon, in Washington Heights—and no matter what the class was doing, Kristina didn’t try. She sat quietly, paper in front of her, but even with one-on-one assistance, she was rarely willing to pick up a pencil.
The school “disciplined” Kristina by condemning her to sit on the rug by herself until the end of the class period. Then she’d be released, back to her desk, where the cycle started again—new subject, still no work. Back to the rug. And repeat. And repeat.
One day, I took Kristina and her classmates to a garden, where we watered plants and raked a yard. At the end of our time together, we planted little flowers in plastic cups that the kids could take home. To allow for drainage, each cup needed to be pierced at the bottom with a hammer and nail. Kristina’s classmates were afraid of the hammer and had to be coaxed, but Kristina picked up that hammer and nail with phenomenal competence.
“Whack, whack, whack!”
I smiled. “You’re really good at that, kiddo.”
Amar, in Palestine, was fourteen. He had autism and difficulty with motor control. He had learned to play the piano a little. My job was to give him some English practice, both spoken and written, and because he loved the piano, I thought we’d share some music. I played him country and rock and roll and classical and blues. We practiced words like “fast” and “slow” and “happy” and “sad.” We laughed and danced.
At the end of our third session, he wrote, laboriously, “My Favrite is Judy garland she is very very very good.”
Smerling started school in the Bronx speaking only Spanish. Smerling’s mom and dad spoke only Spanish, too. This was true for every child at Table One in Miss Parker’s kindergarten, but there was a difference between Smerling and the other five—because every day, when Smerling came to class, her homework was done.
I asked Miss Parker how her parents managed it. The instructions, of course, were all in English. “There’s a neighbor who speaks English,” Miss Parker told me, “and every day, Smerling’s mother and father go over to the neighbor and have her translate, and then they go back and sit with Smerling until she finishes everything.”
I could tell that Smerling knew how to work. Although her academic progress wasn’t fast, it was steady, and she was always on task and always listening. Two years later, when Smerling finished first grade, I abruptly realized how much she’d blossomed: a giggling, thriving child who knew who she was and where she was going.
I knew and worked with Lucas for nearly five years. His mom came from Venezuela, his dad from Ecuador, and he was a gifted kid; we mostly studied whatever subjects he found interesting. He loved my stories about special education. He was always asking questions: why do people’s brains work like that? So, one day, when he was eleven years old, I took him to spend a day with me, teaching.
He did great, and in the final class period—in which we visited a first-grade room that was nearly always in chaos—I asked him to sit with Briana. “Just be patient and help her to do her work. Keep reminding her, gently, what she’s supposed to be doing.”
Lucas did exactly this, but at the end of class, he apologized. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what to do.”
I was genuinely surprised. “What do you mean? I thought you did beautifully.”
“But she didn’t finish her work. She barely started her work.”
And then I realized my mistake. “Oh, Lucas, you have no idea what a difference you made. Briana stayed in her seat. She held her pencil. She talked about the story with you. She wrote her name. Normally, she does none of those things. You helped her participate more today than I have ever seen.”
Three-year-old Zara’s mother came from Uganda, and her father came from Haiti. Mommy and Daddy both worked, so Zara spent her days with Auntie, whose primary language was Haitian Creole. They asked me to help her build her English skills. We spent an hour, each session, playing on the kitchen floor with enticing toys and interesting storybooks—anything that would get her speaking and listening.
One day, Zara told me, “I fall down on the playground and did a boo-boo on my nose.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Did you fall down too? Boo-boo on your nose?”
“No,” I replied, “but one time, I fell down and got a boo-boo on my knee. The scar is still there. See?”
She kissed it. “You ever need me to kiss it again, you let me know.”
And finally, Amy.
Nine-year-old Amy had trouble in school. One day, in the midst of a math lesson, she asked me, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
“I do,” I said. “What about Him?”
“Well, yesterday, my grandma, she took me to this church, and she showed me a statue of him. At first I thought it was Zeus, but it wasn’t. It was Jesus.”
“Mmm-hmm. Carry the seven.”
“Oh, right. Anyway, do you know what happened to him?”
Horrified: “They nailed him to a cross!”
“Why did they do that?”
I had to think about that one. Grandma, I knew, was Catholic, but I wasn’t sure about the rest of the family, so I wanted to be careful about theology. Also, she was nine, and we were theoretically having a math lesson.
“Well . . . there were people acting like bullies and not being kind, and Jesus told them to stop. He tried to teach everybody how to be kind and how to love each other. And the bullies didn’t like that. So some of them got together, and they nailed him to a cross to kill him.”
Amy thought that over, chewing her pencil eraser. “But why didn’t Jesus just tell his mom and dad?”
“Oh, Jesus wasn’t a kid when this happened. He was an adult. And so were the bullies.”
Her jaw dropped. “Grown-ups did that???”
Grown-ups did that, indeed. It’s not that children are angels—they’re not—but they’re far more genuine than many adults, and they tend to see the world a little more clearly. They are voraciously curious, questioning everything, and unless taught otherwise, generally empathetic. Before being called into a different kind of ministry, I spent a number of years teaching in various settings, and every day, I’m grateful for the memories.
Jesus taught us to become like children, and I think that part of what he meant was I’ve seen in my young friends: to be eager like Tweety Bird, joyful like Amar, persistent like Smerling, helpful like Lucas, and loving like Zara. Jesus also said we should love one another, a thing I find much easier when I try to see the child in every person. I wonder sometimes if the people I find hardest to love were once like Kristina or Briana, who needed help they didn’t receive.
Most of all, I want to remember Amy. I want to be like Amy, properly horrified. “Grown-ups did that???” I want to see things clearly, to hear stories again for the very first time, to notice things that I’ve learned to skip over. And I want to mimic Amy’s exuberance and resilience, because five minutes after that conversation, she was doing a backbend out of her chair.