*all names in this piece have been changed
My first teaching position was a bit unusual. Because a full time teacher was not needed at either school in the district, I worked half-day at the high school and half-day at the elementary school. That was the nice thing about my special education degree; it encompassed grades kindergarten through twelfth. Oh wait … except I didn’t actually have my special education degree (yet). That is how scarce the supply of special education teachers was at the time. But with an elementary education degree in hand and a commitment to obtain my master's degree in special education, I was able to accept the position.
So there I was, a teacher of big kids with learning and behavioral problems and a teacher of little kids with learning and behavioral problems. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at either end of the spectrum. But despite my lack of training, I had worked with kids long enough to know I was good at one thing: listening. I knew from experience that if an adult acted the slightest bit interested, kids (no matter what age) generally liked to talk.
So I started asking questions. From those questions, I obtained quite a bit of information. At the high school I learned …
Eric* liked to repair cars. With incredible patience, I listened to him talk about active suspensions, air pumps, inhibitors, and injectors.
Michael liked to farm with his dad. It took all my strength to stay focused when he described field crops, hilling, tillage, and sprigging.
Carly liked to bake cakes and decorate them. Now this was one topic I could talk about all day. I managed to contain my drool when she told me about her buttercream icing, the Chiffon Method, figure piping, and fondant.
At the elementary school I learned …
Max liked Pokemon. I would like to say I became educated on moves like subpuncher, sunnybeamer, trickbander, and boltbeam, but the more I learned the more confused I became.
Tom liked dinosaurs. He taught me more about the Mesozoic Era than I ever wanted to know—although he preferred to call it the “Age of Reptiles” which was a little more my speed. His enthusiasm for violent predators was definitely not contagious.
Julie liked to read. When I got her to look up from her books long enough, she told me the plots to all her favorite books, like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Charlotte’s Web. Now that was discussion I thoroughly enjoyed.
It didn’t take me long to realize that if I centered my lessons around each child’s specific interests, things would go a lot better. Over time, there were less chairs being thrown, less curse words being said, less refusals to complete work, and less defiance overall.
So I continued asking about car repair, farming, and cake decorating at the high school. I requested more information on Pokemon, dinosaurs, and literature from the “experts” at the elementary school. Rarely did their interests waver and rarely did the kids not want to talk about what so clearly excited them.
About mid-school year, something amazing happened. One of the interests was unexpectedly brought to school. It was on my birthday. Carly walked into the classroom proudly carrying the most beautiful light pink cake. It had basket weave icing worthy of a royal wedding. Her cake tasted divine. I had to know how she made it so moist. She walked to the front of the classroom and whispered her pudding secret in my ear. When she did, I looked into her beautiful green eyes and said, “Carly, you have a gift. You are a cake baker extraordinaire. Please don’t ever stop baking and decorating!”
Shortly thereafter, Eric brought me some pictures. He wanted to show me how he refurbished an entire car. I am no auto expert, but I can tell the difference between a remarkable “before” and “after” picture. I said, “Now wait a minute, let me get this straight. No one taught you this? You just figured it out?”
Eric beamed and told me (again) the story of how he came to work on cars and how he used his granddad’s tools for all his jobs. He knew it was easy to impress someone who admitted that she got a little baffled when it came time to check the oil, but he liked to hear my opinion. And my opinion was this: “Eric, this is your gift. You are going to make lots of people happy by fixing up their cars!”
Eventually I was able to hold each one of Michael’s 4-H agriculture medals in my hand. He was a farmer through and through, and a darn good one. I knew he would grow delicious crops for his family and for the world. Farming was Michael’s gift, so I told him so.
Once these gifts were voiced, I noticed a remarkable change. When my students walked through the halls between classes, there was less cowering. Rather than clinging to the wall as if they were invisible, they walked along with at least one companion. They weren’t afraid to talk. They had something to say. I even detected slight smiles on faces that I thought would never show much joy. The declared “gift” seemed to have created an invisible shield of confidence and self-assurance—as if knowing they had “it” made an impact in the way my students walked, talked, and carried themselves through life.
I decided I must also voice the gifts of the little people.
I told Max that I didn’t know anyone in the world who knew so much about Pokemon. I said, “Do you think we should let your classmates know about your gift? That way, if they have any questions about Pokemon, they can come to you.”
I will never forget when Max stood in front of his class and gave them a tutorial on Pokemon. One by one, they came forward asking questions. He knew all the answers. He quickly became the Pokeman Master. I reminded him that it was his gift, but he told me he already knew.
Julie was asked if she would help some struggling readers in first grade. I said, “You know, reading is your gift. Not everyone has such a gift. Would you help some little kids with reading on Wednesdays at 10:00?”
Julie tried not to smile at the prospect, but she couldn’t help it. Wednesdays became her favorite day. There were no behavior issues from Julie on Wednesday. She loved using her gift to help others.
Tom got to make a dinosaur diorama to show the class. It was so good, he was asked to show many different classes. He confided in me that he always wished he was a dinosaur, or at least a lizard, so he didn’t have to talk to anyone. But that day, he said he was glad he was Tom.
“I am glad you are Tom, too,” I responded. “Because the world needs to know about these amazing creatures—and no one knows them quite like you do.”
From that point, I became a big believer in voicing the gifts—to acknowledge and celebrate a person’s natural talents that are visible from an outside perspective. It saddened me to think about all the special abilities that were overlooked and minimized by being regarded merely as “interests.” I vowed to always voice the gifts that I saw.
Fast-forward nine years …
I was sitting side-by-side with my six-year-old as she practiced her ukulele and sang “Happy Girl” by Martina McBride. I thought she sounded lovely so I said, “I love to hear you sing.”
Her face immediately broke into a smile, but then it quickly turned to worry. “But I am also really good at swimming. So which one is my … my …. “ I knew exactly what word she was looking for.
“Gift?” I offered.
“Yes! Which one is my gift? Swimming or ukulele singing?” my child earnestly inquired.
I leaned in as if I had the most wonderful secret in the world. “Some people have more than one gift!”
“Then which one do you use?” she asked with genuine concern.
“Well, I think you try to use all your gifts if you can, and if they conflict, you pick the gift that you most love to do.” With a gentle touch on her arm, I added, “You don’t have to decide right now.”
That response seemed to satisfy her. She picked up her ukulele and strummed, happily relishing one of her multiple God-given gifts.
That’s when I remembered when I was first told of my gift. I was eight. The teacher told the class to write a story. When it was time to stop, I felt sad. I wanted to keep writing. I carried up several sheets of paper containing a real story about my cat. The story described little details that some might overlook or find boring, but these small details made my heart feel good to write about.
I told my teacher, “It’s not finished yet. May I have more time?”
My teacher gave me extra time that day, and the next day, and for months she gave me extra time to write my stories.
One day, after giving me extra time, Miss Paluska looked me in the eyes and said, “Writing is your gift, Rachel. I hope you will never stop writing.”
I felt like she placed a golden crown on my head. Suddenly I had a purpose: I was a writer.
Like Carly , Eric, Michael, Max, Julie, and Tom, those words shaped me; they stuck with me. When I felt lost, or when I thought I had no friends, or when I failed in other areas of my life, I had something to hold on to. Like a security blanket tucked close to my chin, I had my gift. Miss Paluska had said so. And I’ll never forget how she sounded when she said it.
So forgive me if I get a little teary when you leave a comment that says, “Please don’t stop writing, Rachel.”
Because I am a big believer in voicing the gifts.
If you see one in a child, a teen, or even an adult, I hope you will say so.
And if you’re not sure what gift lies within, ask a question. Ask them what they like to do or what they like to know about. Then watch. Do their eyes light up when they talk about it? Do they love to show you what they can do? Could they talk about it all day long and never grow tired of it?
If so, let them talk … let them show.
You might be the first one who’s ever asked. You might be the first one to say it out loud.
Because if you are blessed to be that person – the person who says “you have a gift” – just know they will carry your words in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
And I guarantee, those words will save them a time or two.
Taking time to see and acknowledge the gifts in another human being is a simple way to grasp what really matters in a world of distraction—and it is something we can all do today.
Feel free to share your “gift” stories. I cherish the comments and insights of this community. We can learn so much from each other. Thank you for being a part of The Hands Free Revolution. Let us continue our journey looking for the gifts in the little and big people around us today.