“Everything's in line
But I am bruised
I need a voice to echo
I need a light to take me home
I kinda need a hero
Is it you?” -Demi Lovato, Nightingale
One of my very first students as a special education teacher was Annie. She taught me so much about living a “feeling” life, and her parents were some of my greatest encouragers. Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with this special family, but especially since Annie’s dad John was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. John recently began a new medication and he’s felt better than he has in years. Much to my surprise, they asked if they could visit my family and me. To them, the 500-mile drive was irrelevant; John had something he wanted to say to me.
Within minutes of arriving, John thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said Annie would not be where she is today without me. I wanted to point out that Annie was the one who changed me, but it was not the time. Perhaps now is the time.
When Annie became my student, I was fresh out of college, just beginning my master’s degree in special education. I’d never had a student with autism. I did a lot of listening and observing. What I saw in Annie amazed me. I wanted her peers to see it too. I often sat with her in her classroom, in the lunchroom, and on the playground to help her use the social skills we worked on during our sessions together.
I remember how Annie and I would find a place at the empty lunch table and children would gravitate towards us. Little girls with bouncy ponytails and brightly colored socks eagerly squeezed in. I wasn’t naïve; I realized the children wanted to know this new young teacher who always wore a warm smile, gracefully mastered platform wedge heels, and coached the high school girls’ tennis team. Although I was the initial appeal, it was Annie who stole the show.
“She’s so funny,” a little girl said to me one day as we left the lunchroom. “I can’t stop smiling!”
My heart fluttered with hope. “She’s very smart too! You should sit with her tomorrow,” I encouraged.
I hoped that little girl, and many little girls thereafter, would come to see what I saw in Annie. I hoped they too would consider themselves lucky to be Annie’s friend.
The grown up version of Annie was as interesting and delightful and the younger one – although initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It had been nineteen years – my wedding day – since I last saw her.
I prepared my daughters for Annie’s visit by telling them simply to treat her as they would a friend. “Listen … ask questions … wait for the response … smile … give her extra time to articulate.”
The instant rapport between my daughters and Annie was quite beautiful. For hours, we gathered in the kitchen making a variety of homemade candies as Annie crocheted several beautiful scarfs with skillful hands. There was a steady stream of conversation, reminiscing, and laughter. Annie revealed vast knowledge on a wide array of subjects. She recalled minute details, obscure facts, and historical dates most people can’t retain for an hour, let alone years. Annie’s awareness of tastes, sounds, and sights were vivid and intense. Annie felt it all, and we felt more when we were in her company.
“Sometimes when we were talking, it was like talking to someone my age,” my daughter Avery said about her new 30-year-old friend later than night. “I wish she lived closer. We’d have Annie and her parents over to do more crafts and baking.”
My older daughter Natalie was intrigued by Annie’s knowledge of cats, her sense of humor, and her conversation skills. “Sometimes when she accidently interrupted, she stopped herself,” Natalie noticed. “And when she forgot you were an author, she did a good job of using humor to smooth it over.”
Both girls loved hearing how successful Annie is at the bank where she crunches numbers and creates formulas that leave others baffled. She is a gem of an employee who doesn’t get distracted by social media or office drama; she gets right to work and focuses solely on the task at hand.
“Does she have friends, Mama?” Avery asked the dinner table one night.
I’d asked her mom the same thing when the girls were busy crafting. The answer was no, not really. But occasionally she gets invited to things with people at work.
When I relayed this to my daughters, they both looked sad.
“But remember, Annie’s very happy,” I quickly assured them. I wanted my daughters to understand Annie was a success story. “When Annie was young, there were many medical professionals who wrote her off and said she should be institutionalized. Her parents refused to believe that and worked tirelessly to help her live a productive and joyful life. Just look at her now! She is content with her work, her family, and her hobbies,” I pointed out.
“Oh, I am not sad for Annie,” Avery clarified. “I am sad for the people who will never know of Annie’s gifts—the ones we got to see by spending time with her.”
Me too. Me too, wise child. Me too.
For several weeks I have grappled with what part of this memorable visit I was being called to share. Was it Annie’s father’s incredible determination to live one more day, making it now seven years past his diagnosis? Was it how Annie’s parents’ relationship inspired me to start building my life on the stable foundation of undistracted love six years ago? Was it the way their family lived their ‘happily ever after' now instead of putting it off to a day that may never come? Was it how elaborate plans need not be made when company comes—simply gather in the kitchen where conversation and laughter can flow freely? Was it about saying yes to opening your home even if you’re unsure about how people will get along?
Then I saw a post going viral, and I knew exactly what needed to be shared. The post contained a photo of a school worksheet belonging to a boy named Christopher. Highlighted on the sheet was his response to the question: Who are your friends? His response: No one.
I cried—not just for Christopher, but also for those who are missing their chance to know Christopher’s gifts and be changed by them.
I desperately wished someone would sit down next to him—someone who is interesting, funny, new, or known around the school—just one person to take that chance so others might follow. Yes, that person might be the initial appeal for others to gather, but soon the spotlight would shift to Christopher; soon he could steal the show like Annie did.
And now for a request—it’s quite simple really, but life-changing:
Could we look for them today? Could we look for the Annies of the world who are working so hard at their jobs and not being asked to lunch? Could we look for the Christophers of the world who are standing alone on the playground? Could we be extra kind to the restaurant workers and grocery baggers who others ignore because of slurred speech or physical deformities? Could we look for those with sad eyes because too often they walk alone?
You don’t have to be skilled to talk with individuals others avoid.
You don’t have to have an educational degree to find common interests with people who appear different than you.
You don’t have to be trained on how to connect with those who live with unique challenges.
Just talk to them like you would a friend.
Just look into their eyes so they know they are seen.
Just ask a question and let them show you the beauty inside.
Just say, “Is this seat taken?”
I taught special education for a decade, yet there is still so much I don’t know about that ever-changing field and those who fall under its colorful umbrella.
But I do know Annie is as intriguing as the scarfs she creates.
I do know there are countless Annies in the world with gifts no one’s ever seen.
I do know every single one of us has the ability to invite these gifts forth and shine a spotlight on them.
I do know when you bear witness to the undiscovered gifts within another human being, you walk away with more …
Like a warm scarf draped across your shoulders, you come away wishing everyone could see what you just saw.
Because it could change their lives forevermore.
Dear friends of The Hands Free Revolution, I know many of you read my posts to your children, and for that I am truly thankful. My prayer is that this post will be read and shared with many children, teens, and adults. Right now, especially now, we need to “see” each other … to say, “I hurt with you” … to be someone’s hope. By taking an empty seat beside someone who appears different than us, we can heal rifts, bridge gaps, and establish critical connections in a time of divisiveness and alienation in our country. If each of us in our respected communities were to shine a light on someone today, just think of the thousands of Annies and Christophers who could be discovered. Love makes good things possible. Love creates hope. Thank you for reading, sharing, and commenting on today's post. You are what bring my stories to life. My words are nothing without the actions you take with them.
I wanted to note that I gave Annie a “come as you are” metal cuff (as seen in the photos) and told her to keep being her amazing self. Her mother let me know yesterday that the acceptance Annie felt during her time with our family has made a huge impact. That beautiful metal cuff is available in my online shop, as well as leather bracelets, and silicone bands inscribed with these healing mantras: Come As You Are, ONLY LOVE TODAY, See Flowers Not Weeds, Today Matters More Than Yesterday, I Choose Love. These mantras are also available on gorgeous hand-lettered prints for schools, offices, studios, and homes.
I will be speaking in Mandan, North Dakota on Saturday, November 12. The title of my talk is “Cultivating Peace, Presence, & Grace in a Maxed-Out World.” This is a FREE event hosted by Spirit of Life Church. Click here for details. I would so love to meet you and hear your story. Also. Jupiter, Florida was just added to my speaking schedule for February. Click here to learn more about the Think Better/Live Better event. Thank you for your unending support of my work! I am so grateful.
This post touched the deepest recesses of my heart! I have two beautiful Annie’s in my life — my oldest daughter, and my youngest son. Your words exquisitely describe my mother-heart. My greatest desire is for their peers to see them as I do — as interesting people worth knowing. Sadly, my daughter’s youthful experiences were riddled with pain. She struggled with depression and became suicidal at age 9 because of the cruelty of her peers. It took many years to help her overcome the thoughtlessness of those who mocked and teased her. Now, as a 20-year old, she navigates life pretty well, but she still has precious few people in her life who see her as she really is. My 6-year old son, on the other hand, has been blessed with an incredible friend who has truly helped him navigate through the social world. Xander came into our lives when the boys were just 4, but his social skills were that of someone much older! Xander is such a light in our life and gently steers my son through friendships and social situations. Because of this incredible young man, my son has friends who like him for who he is. I pray daily that Xander’s goodness and light will rub off on others, and that my 4 neurotypical children will reach out to others who struggle like their siblings. Thank you so much for writing this beautiful post today!
Rachel Stafford says
Dear Valena, thank you for expanding on my post in a way that I never could. You have provided an even deeper look, an even greater motivation to see the Annies of the world and know the PROFOUND impact of ONE TRUE FRIEND in their lives. I am thankful for your beautiful children and for your son’s friend Xander. I love how you took a moment to recognize his important role & beautiful heart. I think anyone who is raising a Xander will be especially appreciative and proud after they read your heart-stirring comment. This post today took many several weeks to write because I carefully considered each and every word. In a single comment, you made all of the time, effort, and love worth it — and then some. Thank you for being my blessing today.
So beautifully written Valena. I too hope Xander’s goodness rubs off. Thank you Rachel for such a beautiful story as well and for the reminder. XXX
I absolutely love this! This is how I try to live my life. There is so much kindness that we can bring into the lives of ANYONE each day, with little acts of love! Many years ago, back in college, I made it a point to look for someone every day who was sitting alone in the cafeteria. I’d introduce myself and ask if I could sit with them. I made so, so many new friends; it truly enriched MY life by going out of my way to reach out to anyone who was sitting alone.
Thank you for taking the time to compose this. I want to share it with my children.
Hi, I love this story too. I volunteer to teach and work with deaf /hard of hearing people for 70 hours each month. In the south, if you have some type of disability, people have a sweet way of calling you “special.” But when you really get to know people who are different than you are (mentally, physically, etc.) you realize how truly SPECIAL they are. Oh my goodness, the things I have learned from people who make odd noises in public and are looked down upon because they don’t understand everything the way the rest of the world does. I am a better person because of what they have taught me. And how FUNNY they are! The stories they tell!
So my husband and two sons have learned American Sign Language with me, and we all spend a good amount of time teaching deaf people the independent life skills they need to be more successful and happy with themselves in life. Hopefully I am raising two more Xanders. Men in the making who know how to treat all sorts of people.
The moral I learned from you Rachel, is always treat people kindly. Don’t ever look down on anyone. And our children will do the same good deeds we do. We not only touch hearts, we change lives. What’s better than that?
Heather Legge says
This is beautiful, such a honest story of kindness. I’m not sure what else to say…I hope I will be this kind. That my daughters will be this kind. That people will be kind to us… No one truly knows anyone else’s circumstances. There is no room for judgement or criticism.
Anne Marie Grindrod says
some years back, I got the thought into my head that ‘a compliment does not belong to me, it belongs to the person who inspires that compliment’. In other words, if the compliment I want to pay someone just stays in my head and remains unspoken & ungiven, it does not come to life or go to the person who it is for.
I know this thought is a bit of a tangent to what Rachel has written here (& elsewhere), but somehow I felt I could add it here…
Suzanne Kunkel says
This brought back so many cherished memories — of your wonderful teaching and this wonderfully kind and talented young woman and her parents. As I read this, I smile with tears in my eyes as I remember the amazing qualities each of you (Rachel, Annie, her mom and dad) shared with me and our school family. I am thankful that I was fortunate enough to experience time with all of you. Thank you for sharing and I wish you all the best. 🙂
Rachel Stafford says
Awww … Suzanne! This brings my heart SUCH JOY to hear from you. You were such a loving mentor and supporter of me & my students during my years at BPS! You have touched countless teachers and students with your beautiful gift of connection, listening, accepting, and guiding. Bless you, Mrs. Kunkel! 🙂
Patty Hursch says
Dear Rachel, you are a gift to the world in so many ways. From your writings I know if your health issues and the fact that they haven’t kept you from loving, living, and sharing your insights can only bless you and lead you- perfect, loving, truly living- you to health and continued joys, blessings and love.
You are loved, appreciated, and prayed for by (dare I say) your millions of followers!
Cheryl Prentice says
Oh, Rachel! I loved this!!! Annie is such a special young woman! Thank you for sharing this update on her!!
Laura Jane says
Rachel~ I LOVE this beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing. Since we’ve recently moved, I admit I’ve found the desire to try to “fit in” creep into my own little heart, as well as my children’s. It is tempting to try to find the “right” people to get to know… at church, with neighbors, and at events for my kiddos. But I’m learning to try to be brave and approach someone who looks a little lonely too… like the mom sitting by herself at the park, or the family that’s standing off to the side at the school event. It’s been a good reminder that when I’m at these events, it’s not about my comfort… but maybe I can pour out a little love for someone else. It’s funny, when we reach out to the lonely, we find that it makes us a little less lonely too. Thank you for your heartfelt encouragement. It always hits home. I’ve been encouraging my girls to look for lonely kids at Sunday school or the playground… I will share this story with them too. Hugs and best wishes to you and yours!!
Dear Rachel and girls,
We also have our own Annie named Ross. Ross also has autism and we have all struggled through the years with understanding how to handle situations. Ross is now 31 and living in a private group home for 3 months now. We visit him once a week and just dropped him off after our visit this evening….crying all the way home. My mother’s heart aches because we cannot bring him home yet for the first time since he moved. My mother’s heart aches because he is our son but cannot live with us because of the “some day” we are facing. We know this is the right thing to do but it still hurts a lot. I love that your family is having beautiful experiences that recognize the gifts these dear ones are and what they have to teach us. Thank you all for your sweet recognition of what is truly important in life.
Wonderful and touching post.
The story of Annie and your encouragement to reach out to the Annie’s of the world made me smile and shake my head.
Kindness is always welcomed.
Melissa K says
Be Kind Always! A simple phrase, yet it is hard to always follow. All I can do is keep on trying. Thank you for the reminder!
Your writing is always so inspiring and I thank you so much.
Right now I’m in tears. I am the mother of an Annie who isn’t autistic but has learning disabilities. You just described my mother’s heart that breaks apart when I see how lonely she is. Everyone tells me when she grows up it will be different, she will find people that will accept and love her as she is. Today she is an awkward, verbally challenged, lonely tween, ignored by her classmates because she is different. There is so much pain. I wish so much for a little kindness….
Your post gives me hope and strength to keep on trying.
Caroline McGraw says
As a sister to a young man with autism, it always moves me when others make an effort to include him in conversation and activities. Thank you, Rachel, for this much-needed reminder to include the ones who often sit alone. (And brava to Avery for her insight – we are totally the ones who miss out when we ignore and exclude.) As always, your posts give me hope. Thank you. xoxo
When My own quest for perfection turns me into someone I don’t want to be. Your words remind me of who I can become. I am a messy work in progress but I thank you for sharing Grace with me. #onlylovetoday #seetheflowersnottheweeds #happinessbeatsperfection
Rachel Stafford says
I am grateful for you, Danielle.