*name has been changed
Just before the new year, a popular monthly publication requested permission to publish “Loving a Child Through the Challenges of Life” in their spring edition. As if this opportunity weren’t surreal enough, it would include a photo shoot and a video interview.
The child in me – the one who spent hours filling notebooks in her lemon-yellow bedroom – was giddy at the thought of my writing being published in a magazine that my parents and grandmother often read. But what thrilled me even more was that the message of hope contained in the article would reach a worldwide audience.
Little did I know this experience would offer another chance at letting go to grasp what really matters in life.
This is my story …
In the days leading up to the photo shoot, my hope for a decent headshot quickly expanded. I learned there would be different sets, outfit changes, and mock children to serve as students in the background. The goal was to create a setting similar to the one in which the story took place.
The photography session was held on a Saturday afternoon. Given the level of primping, fluffing, powdering, and posing that occurred, I felt like a bride on her wedding day.
A few minutes into the shoot, the talented photographer motioned me over to see a few of the images she had captured.
I was stunned. The photos were beautiful.
Although part of me was relishing this dreamlike experience, the other part of me felt uncomfortable looking at myself with every hair in place, the soft light shining at just the right angle.
Because let me assure you, when I was teaching Kyle* and his classmates in the program for students with severe behavior issues, this is not what I looked like.
And if the readers of the magazine wanted an accurate portrayal of that time in my life, I could have easily painted them a picture. You see, every single minute in that classroom will be engrained in my mind forever.
Imagine if you will …
- There were no skirts, dresses, or stylish shoes … it took a mere two hours in the classroom to learn I must be able to run, sit on the floor, and jump spontaneously into occupational therapy sessions. I quickly learned I would be spit on; I would clean up unspeakable messes; I would go down slides, roller skate, and even play football to keep the peace. Oh yes, comfortable clothes and practical shoes were a must in this classroom.
- There was little make-up. I stopped wearing mascara altogether because during my bathroom breaks, I would cry in the stall.
- There was a perpetual sweat ring around my collar. Yes, it was Florida, but I sweated not because of the heat; I sweated because I was continually in action, engaging, calming, motivating—working every second to prevent an outburst.
- There were no accessories, aside from my watch—I never forgot my watch. It was my lifeline to hope, letting me know exactly how many minutes until I would be home, away from the pain, anger, unpredictability, defiance, and despair that these children carried into the room each day.
- There was doubt. For the first time in my teaching career, I considered quitting the profession I loved with all my heart. There were days when I considered giving up everything I had worked so hard to achieve if it meant not having to endure another day in this classroom.
- There was desperation. I prayed as I drove to school. I prayed when I walked the students from art to P.E. I prayed when I stepped out of the room to cram a sandwich down my throat … when I waited for students to come out of the restroom … when I drove home … and all the minutes in between. I prayed for each of my twelve students, but selfishly I prayed for the strength to make it through the day.
As you can see, there was nothing glamorous about that year of my life. There was nothing beautiful about the thoughts that went through my head during that time. When I looked at the photographer’s images of myself, I felt like a fraud. Like there really needed to be a notation beneath the photos in the magazine—something like: *Objects in the photo may appear much more pleasant than they actually were at the time.
Before I went too far down the useless road of shame and self-doubt, I brought my focus back to what really mattered. I reminded myself that my article could potentially help many families going through a difficult time – despite what the photos looked like. So instead, I chose to enjoy this new and exciting experience.
Soon enough, it was time for the video interview. I answered a few questions about Kyle and how he had impacted my life.
The last question was this:
“When was the last time you saw Kyle?”
Suddenly, I was transported back to the last day of school nearly eleven years ago. It was 2:37 p.m.—that time of day when my co-teacher and I walked the children to the bus praying everyone get there without deciding to flee or without picking a fight with someone in line.
Kyle and I approached the long line of yellow buses. His #8 bus was waiting. The child who would let no one touch him at the first of the year gently grabbed my arm. “I don’t want school to be ova, Mrs. Stafford.”
“What do you mean? It’s summer! You can play football all day and have fun,” I teased my student who had managed to work his way into my heart despite his tumultuous ups and downs.
“But I won’t getta see you every day. I’m gonna miss you.” He spoke these tender words without abandoning his tough persona, yet his eyes shimmered as if he might cry.
That is when we exchanged a moment.
Perhaps it was “look how far we’ve come.”
Perhaps it was “but we’ll carry a piece of each other in our hearts – you know it and I know it.”
Perhaps it was simply “I love you.”
I can’t say for sure, but in that moment, I felt my face smiling the most radiant smile and he returned an equally glorious smile right back at me.
I thought I had remembered every single day of that trying school year, but somehow this particular day had been buried in my memory bank. Somehow I had forgotten this beautiful moment.
180 days in the school year—and I made it until the very last one.
Although the struggles I endured in order to survive those 180 days may not have been a pretty sight, what that little boy saw when I arrived each day was something beautiful: his teacher showed up. She showed up every day in stretchy pants and flat shoes, with little make-up and puffy-eyes. And what he saw was something he wanted to see every day of his life.
As the photography crew took down the set and got ready for the next one, I went to the bathroom to give myself a moment.
I looked in the mirror, marveling at what the stylist had done with my over-abundance of freckles and thin upper lip. Then I leaned over the sink and said a thank you to the heavens hoping it would reach Kyle, wherever he was. Once again, he had given me a “Hands Free” gem that would inspire my life.
And now I share it with you, my faithful companions on this journey to grasp what really matters:
There are days when we want to beat our head against the wall, when we scream into our pillow, and leave tears upon the steering wheel.
There are days when we feel there is no more left to give, when we want to throw in the towel and admit, “I can’t do this anymore.”
There are days when the words spoken in our head are words we never want another soul to hear.
Those days are not pretty.
But despite the inner turmoil, fear, frustration, and sheer exhaustion we feel, we do something extraordinary.
We show up.
And we keep showing up.
Because we know someone is counting on us.
And when that someone sees us showing up, it means more than we even know.
Then one day, maybe sooner that we think, when every sacrifice we ever made and every tear we ever cried will be exchanged for something magical.
Maybe it will be a tender expression, a loving gesture, a heartfelt word—whatever it is, we will know because it is the moment we have been waiting for … perhaps praying for.
In that moment, we will shine at the one we love and the one we love will shine back at us.
And all that was once so painful, so unsightly, so excruciating …
Will be overshadowed by the light of a beautiful moment in time.
This post was inspired by those of you who bravely share your stories of challenge and heartbreak. Those of you who wrote to me in response to “Hope for the Angry Child” have found a permanent place in my heart.
My hope is that we, as a community, can let go of the “perfection façade” perpetuated by society and social media. Three years ago, my “Hands Free” journey truly began when I let one person into the “real” parts of my life … the not-so-pretty struggles and fears that I didn’t want anyone to see. But by stepping into the light of realness, I offered myself a chance to grasp an authentic and meaningful life.
May we all remember to keep our eyes open for our “beautiful moments” in time. Although they may be brief, they serve as lifelines between the daily challenges we face – if only we “let go” long enough to grasp them.
Thank you for being a part of The Hands Free Revolution. My pursuit to let go of distraction and live is continually inspired by you.