Let’s call her Mrs. Incredible. She is the counselor of over a dozen children with Emotional Behavioral Disorders. In the circular structure of classrooms that forms the first grade floor, her office is stationed in the heart of it, within earshot of any of our desperate calls. Not that she really needs to hear us- she has her walkie strung to a bud stuck in one ear like a cop, ready as always to be the on-call medic, the wiper of snot, the pure face of calm before so much screaming. I am starting to suspect I’ve never known a greater person.
I find myself grabbing her arm like an addict, needing an antidote for the kid kicking at my leg or the one spitting in my face or the other calling me names. I am pleading for her honesty, am I cut out for this? And she says it so gently, you are, and it will all get better soon.
For twenty minutes a day, the five boys I am trying to keep a lid on sit attentive and quiet around a semi-circle table facing her, with the exception of one that is smoldering arms crossed apple sauce in the corner. The other four sit silently awaiting her commands. I think: Are they doing this to me on purpose? I mean, I’ve been talking to Mrs. Incredible- a lot, and it would appear that I’ve been complaining about a chorus of baby angels. The thought is blown out my mind as the corner kid mouths out a swear into her steady, authoritative eyes. She throws me a wink.
She is a master as a teacher, a Children’s Yoda, although, she says it wasn’t something she planned, rather something she was traded into. Her years of training were for work with the physically disabled kids, not the emotionally, but, one day, the principal came to her and informed her she had to switch with the EBD instructor. Neither one knew they were better than the other at their jobs. But the principal noticed.
And I notice it. The grace, patience and utter control she exhibits in this cloud of screaming children, as well as the unceasing adoration they fan her with, makes her my ultimate hero. I am becoming her shadow.
At the table, each kid gets a sheet of paper with a hypothetical story printed on it, one she reads aloud. They are about to bake a birthday cake and there are four choices for accomplishing the task: 1. Read the recipe and follow it closely. 2. Throw random ingredients in the bowl and then shove it the oven. 3. Ask your parent or guardian to help with it. 4. Go do something else, forget the cake.
My can’t-sit-still (by no fault of his own) boy shoots up an eager hand.
“I can’t read good, so I’d ask my mom to help!”
“Ya, me too!” volunteers another.
“Remember our hands,” she says.
Another boy raises his hand and is thus rewarded. “I would read it, I’m good at reading.”
In the corner, the angry boy mutters incoherently to himself.
When Mrs. Incredible smiles, they all smile back in return. Most of the time, I am getting stuck out tongues and muteness, sleepy eyes and stink-eyes. Quiet smiles are a feat, a fortune.
“What this tells me,” she says, “is that everybody learns a little differently. No way is better or worse, but the important thing is to always try. You might just find your way when you do.”
Yes, I think. I drink this in like a secret. Like a treasure.
I am heartened that she explained this truth to my kids. I’ve seen them, from class to class, trying so hard to be to be good, trying to look smart, trying to do what comes so naturally to their peers around them. And I never miss the flash of humiliation and failure behind their flipping-tables temper when they just can’t get it right.
I walk them out of the classroom holding them by the hand, prepared to sit along the wall on the carpet and talk about behavior, but first, I always try to smile, slow and lighten my annoyed voice, say how good they were doing. How impressed I was and how thankful I was for the way they tried hard and made the good choice of leaving when it was time to leave, because, God, who knows how often they hear these things.
And I relate to them. I see in these hard frustrated faces my own failed tries at things, including, most importantly, my faith. I see my long-ago shame of trying to get a grip on God in the dense fog of depression, pretending I was on fire for him, a seasoned pupil, and watching the way my friends nodded back, talked excitedly about Jesus as if he were a tangible thing, a ball of light tucked in their pockets.
I remember the feeling of being small, of yearning to bloom like the peers flourishing all around me. There were so many books I read, Purpose Driven Life, Mere Christianity, Left Behind, none of which sparked anything new and it felt like I just wasn’t faithful enough. I remember how, at long last, I just gave it all up, shoved the whole tiring thing away.
Until, one day, I came across a book by Brennan Manning and it struck some low and nameless place in my soul. I learned about grace, the deep and gritty kind, and the unfailing, never-ending, furious love of the Father. I remember my tears, streaming, as I listened to Phil Wickham’s I will Wait for you There and falling to pieces at the old hymn It is Well. When I grew dark and distant again, turning away from the music and books, I looked to the canvass for distraction, deliverance. I sat for hours mixing and making new colors, slowly learning to loving the expressions of my God-given heart.
And certainly, many of my friends were hiding it too; I wasn’t the only one struggling. Perhaps all of us were. Perhaps all of us were trying to follow some expected recipe, step by step, only to then taste a faith that was burnt, dry, fake in how forgettable and foreign it was. None of us knew that being a Christian never meant losing our unique quirks and soft spots and shortfalls. Faith was never meant to be a one-size fits all thing. It was freedom, breathing, a world full of space. Accepting ourselves as fawned over children of an almighty love.
As the kids are dismissed from this session, the corner child comes sauntering toward me. He takes my hand and says, “can we go to class now?” I look up and Mrs. Incredible is giving me a congratulatory smile, and I raise a fist, Yes!.. To class, I mean. Ten minutes later I am back in her room. He won’t stop crying, I moan, and she gestures toward a seat I slump into.
“How did you become who you are?” I ask, “How did you get so good?”
“I don’t know how, or if I really am that good, but I do know how long. It took me a million different approaches with these kids to finally find my footing and start seeing their needs. Even now, I am still learning.”
She paused for a moment and then said:
“It’s about building relationships and following the protocol. But it also about finding your own way in this crazy school of emotions. You’ll get it.”
I left the room in peace, a little taller now, and practicing a reminder of inner grace: I am learning and I will find my way.