Some of the best parenting lessons I’ve learned came to me before I was a parent. I didn’t know I was receiving them at the time – but now, when I am in action with my children, these invaluable lessons materialize. Suddenly a flashback to an earlier time instantly guides me in my parenting words and actions. You see, there was a time when I witnessed first-hand how to build up a child when others, even the child’s own parents, had decided there was nothing on which to build.
If you’re looking for a gift to give a child this holiday season, please read on. This gift requires no money, only a little patience and some belief … yet this gift can be a life-changer.
This is my story …
I had just moved to Florida with my husband. Armed with a master’s degree in special education and almost a decade of teaching experience, I had several job offers in the realm of special education. I chose a teaching position in a newly established program for children with severe behavioral and learning issues. The twelve children who made up the class all had one thing in common: Their problematic behavior had proved too much for the typical special education classrooms in the school district. My program would be their last chance and their only hope.
It immediately became apparent that the students’ volatile behavior cost them years of academic progress. Ranging in age from six-twelve, many of my students did not know how to read nor did they possess simple math skills. Some children could not identify basic letters or numbers. My co-teacher and I quickly discovered these children were not able to focus long enough to acquire these necessary skills – especially if the content was the least bit challenging.
After several weeks of frustration, failure, fear, and hopelessness, my co-teacher and I decided traditional schooling was not appropriate for these children. Before any academic progress could be made, they must first acquire basic life skills and social skills. In order to do so, we would take them off campus into the real world. Most people probably thought this idea was foolish; these kids couldn’t walk to the art room without having issues — how could they ride a bus and engage in appropriate public behavior?
We would teach them.
My colleague and I planned several outings and communicated our new “curriculum” to the children. Because many of their parents were substance abusers and/or developmentally delayed, these children had been deprived of the most basic life experiences. The children were very excited about the prospect of going places they had only dreamed of visiting. Every day for several weeks, my co-teacher and I modeled the skills that would allow the children to be successful in several particular public settings.
Within two months time, our class successfully grocery shopped, prepared a Thanksgiving meal, putt-putted, and enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant. Because of the glowing reviews the children received from all the businesses we patronized, it was now time to go roller skating.
I will not forget that day for as long as I live.
The generous skating rink owner allowed our class to come on a Thursday morning when the rink was normally closed. We survived the 20-minute bus ride, avoided the barrage of “I want this” when we walked past the vending machines, and managed to get the correct sizes of skates placed on feet.
My co-teacher, who was older and less coordinated than me, preferred to supervise the carpeted area and the bathroom. To my delight, this meant I got to don skates and be on the rink.
The first ten minutes were spent helping the kids get accustomed to the skates. I quickly noted that although these children were short on attention span and academic prowess, they were big on coordination and athleticism. With every ounce of my being, I encouraged, applauded, steadied, and prayed. Please let this work. Please let no one flip out and run for the door.
One by one, every single child got the hang of it.
Within nineteen minutes of our arrival, all twelve students were out on the floor skating. Some quickly, some slowly—but they were all skating. And what was even more amazing was the fact that they were all smiling. I could honestly never remember such a moment in the six-month period our class had been in existence. Slowly, I released a two-ton sigh of relief that felt like a car being lifted off my chest. I’d been holding my breath for nineteen minutes – or perhaps six months – waiting for this moment.
As I glided past my co-teacher we locked tearful eyes. She placed her folded hands in front of her chest in prayer formation. Like me, she was grateful for the grand miracle that was taking place on this rink. For the first time in six months, every child in our class was at peace. How long would it last? I quickly pushed my worries aside and simply enjoyed the miraculous moment at hand.
The children and I got in a comfortable groove. With each loop around the rink, their confidence grew. We all began skating a little faster, taking the turns a little quicker.
The Top 40 dance music was loud and invigorating. The kids happily jiggled their agile bodies under the flashing neon lights. As the children whizzed past, some of them were virtually unrecognizable. I had never seen such happiness … such joy … such freedom on those faces.
Looking at them now, they were just like any kid with a normal home life and a typical school record. Looking at them now, one would never know …
This one often resorted to biting and kicking.
This one ran for miles when he got upset.
This one used spit and vile profanity to take down anyone who got in his way.
This one tore the classroom apart not once, but twice.
This one brought a weapon to school.
This one’s mother was frequently in and out of jail for prostitution so he lived with his aging grandmother.
Yet now, with wheels on their feet and joy in their eyes, these precious children appeared to be flying—free from the pain, anger, rejection, and despair they carried on their small shoulders.
“Come on, Mrs. Stafford!” My students’ energized voices interrupted me from my emotional reverie in hopes I’d race them around the rink.
And I did. We raced … we held hands … we belted out the lyrics to “Where Is The Love” by The Black Eyed Peas … we did circles until we were dizzy. This surreal peacefulness lasted a whole twenty minutes … twenty glorious minutes. For some reason or another, I can’t recall why, disorder broke out. We took off our skates, got back on the bus, and rode back to school. But all was not lost. The children gazed out the window of the bus and there were less harsh words than usual … and definitely more smiles. I lost count of how many times I heard: “That was so fun. Can we do it again?”
There was no question. We knew we MUST skate. For on that rink was a ray of light that we once thought impossible to find. My co-teacher and I made arrangements with the skating rink owner and the school’s transportation department. With relief and gratitude, we learned we could skate every Thursday morning until the school year concluded in May.
The children were elated when they heard the news despite the behavioral expectations that accompanied this special privilege. Each child had personal weekly goals to accomplish in order to skate. Immediately there was a change. I’m not saying anyone was perfect, but they were calmer. I’m not saying suddenly someone could read fluently or do challenging math problems, but they tried. There was a transformation occurring in our twelve-student classroom—and it was due to a skating rink. These children didn’t just look forward to Thursday – they lived for Thursday.
And so did I.
Each visit to the skating rink meant I would feel the wind in my hair while twelve happy faces floated along side me. I didn’t have to raise my voice; I could be their loving companion. And in those minutes that my role changed, from teacher to friend, I could see these children for who they truly were; I could see their goodness shining through.
Thursdays at the skating rink changed the tone of the remaining school year. It changed my relationship with those students. Not only did they accept my hand, they accepted my help and my love. Skating side-by-side with these extraordinary children is an experience I will never forget.
And now, now that I have children of my own, I understand the vital importance of finding that skating rink when we did. And as I skated with my own children last weekend, it hit me. The floor of that skating rink was fertile ground for those troubled children. It was fresh, prosperous soil in which hope and confidence could grow. Past mistakes, future ambitions, I.Q., and family history didn’t matter when the children stepped on to that smooth surface – what mattered only was the glorious moment at hand.
He couldn’t read, but he could skate like the wind.
She couldn’t add 2 + 3, but she could sing all the lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” while she glided with ease.
He couldn’t sit still long enough to listen to a two-minute lesson, but he could skate forward, backwards, and sideways.
Her home life didn’t give her reason to smile, but the feeling of wheels on her feet and wind in her hair sure did.
He lived in perpetual state of deprivation – but at the skating rink he had enough … he was enough.
Friends, I am simply the messenger on this “Hands Free” journey. It is by the grace of God and twelve precious children that I have this message to give:
To build up a child, you must find fertile ground …
Find that place where it doesn’t matter how much he knows or doesn’t know.
Find that place where she can fall 100 times, laugh, and get up and try again.
Find that place where past mistakes, shortcomings, and failures dissipate into thin air.
Find that place where he can be his true self.
Find that place where the two of you can be on the same team.
Find that place where the joy on her face makes her virtually unrecognizable.
Find that place to look forward to … to live for … whether it is a chessboard, a skateboard, or a boogie board … whether it is tech club, drama club, or book club … whether it is behind a sewing machine, an easel, a camera, or a set of drums … find fertile ground on which a tiny ray of light can light your child’s spirit.
And who knows? In the process of finding that place of healing and hope for your child, you may even find peace for yourself.
We all know how easy it is to get discouraged by past difficulties, failures, and disappointments. But this week, I challenge you to let go of negative past experiences that trap you and/or your child in a state of hopelessness. Find that place where you can breathe … find that place that makes your child glow … find that place that makes your child come alive. And then step into the fresh soil of fertile ground and never look back.
I must tell you, your beautiful comments and personal emails are my fertile ground. Thank you, friends of The Hands Free Revolution, for sharing my posts and writings — we’ve nearly reached a community of 20,000, which one year ago seemed like an impossible dream. I am incredibly grateful for each one of you.
*To my readers in or around the Chicago area: A reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times is interested in speaking with some readers of my blog for an article. This would provide incredible exposure for the “Hands Free” message so please email me at email@example.com if you are interested. You can also use the “contact me” button at the top of the blog. Thank you!
The How to Build Up a Child by Hands Free Mama, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.