“I went looking for someone I left behind
Yeah, but no one just a stranger I did find …
Different places, yeah, but they all look the same
Dreams of faces in the streets devoured by names …
Words dismantled, hey, and all the books unbound
Conversations though we utter not a sound
I heard a rumor, I don't know if it's true
That you'd meet me where the flame turns blue.”
–David Gray, Flames Turn Blue
Two days ago, I walked into my assigned classroom and took a deep breath. Here, I would speak to four groups of middle schoolers (100 students in all) about being an author. I knew I was invited to Career Day to expand the students’ knowledge and horizons, but I felt certain my role that day was to facilitate something far greater. Simply coming to talk at them felt like a wasted opportunity, a tragedy of sorts. I yearned to hear their voices—never-before-heard truths that could lead to triumph for us all.
But first, I had to tell them about life as an author. Yes, I would cover job details and facts, but more importantly, I’d build a foundation on which an important question could be posed. In order for truths to come forth, they must be properly invited. The goal of my talk was to create a safe environment where authentic sharing could take place, no matter how unpleasant or difficult it was to hear.
I swallowed my pride and proceeded to make it clear that truth and vulnerability were welcomed and encouraged here.
To groups of twenty-five students at a time, I shared my childhood dream of being an author that I’d suppressed for nearly thirty years. I told them about the awkwardness and insecurities I felt growing up, except when I was writing. I shared painful revelations like realizing my inner bully was causing me to engage in self-destructive behaviors in order to be deemed “successful.” I told them about my addiction to a device that I held more often than my child’s hand. I told them about the “badge of busy” I wore proudly despite the way it left me empty and scarred my soul. I opened up about yelling, controlling, and criticizing the people I loved under the guise of “good intentions.” I described the near death of my Noticer’s beautiful spirit by the hands of productivity and efficiency.
“These are some of the difficult truths I’ve written about on my blog and in my books,” I explained, “People see themselves in my stories in a way that inspires them to change and grow as I change and grow.”
Although my audience consisted of thirteen and fourteen year olds, their glistening eyes and nodding heads indicated the struggles I spoke of were not exclusive to adults. I could see the wheels turning inside their perceptive minds. For all our sakes, I hoped they were about to let me into their worlds.
“I believe each one of you has a special purpose—a contribution to the world only you can make,” I said when the final five minutes of the session remained. “I believe your voices hold great value, and it is not by accident that I am here today. I want to amplify your voices so the world can learn from you.”
If anyone was sleepy or disinterested, they were awake now. Postures straightened. Heads raised. Expressions became pensive. They were up for the task. This was their moment to be heard.
As I handed out index cards on which to write their responses, I posed one single question: “If you could tell the whole world something and knew they were listening, what would it be?”
To be sure the students understood this was an open, mistake-free invitation, I emphasized these four freedoms:
Your response could be anything you want your parents, peers, or the world in general to know.
I do not need names.
There are no right or wrong answers.
Remember: Your voice holds value. Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.
To be honest, I was not expecting every student to participate—but they did.
I was not expecting every student to take it seriously—but they did.
Their responses were raw, powerful, enlightening, thoughtful, heartbreaking, mature, and useful. Their responses could also be life-changing depending on what we do with them.
For a moment, will you push aside all other thoughts and distractions and read these truths … these pleas … these wisdoms and recommendations? Will you imagine them coming from the lips of a child or teen you love? Because it could be—it could be very well be the voice of someone you love today or in the future.
They’re talking to us.
Let’s take a moment and really listen:
- “One thing that my family is missing is time. Time is the only thing we’re running out of and never can get back. We need more time so our family can get to know us more and we can make more memories.”
- “I want you to see the amount of pain and stress I deal with all the time.”
- “Being alone and not having support sucks … be there for everyone even if you don’t know them.”
- “You can’t look back to what you could have done, only what you are going to do.”
- “I wish parents and adults would listen to what kids have to say. They seem too busy to talk to us.”
- “More peace and less hostility”
- “I think people need to accept one another for who they are and not for how they look.”
- “Just because I am not good at one subject doesn’t mean I am not smart.”
- “I want people to believe in me and what my dreams are and not put me down when I need to be pulled up.”
- “My parents live through me. They don’t ask me what I want. They say it’s so I can be someone, but they always say, ‘I just want you to …’”
- “I am different, not sick. I have bipolar disorder.”
- “Out of everyone I’ve ever known, my family has inspired me the most.”
- “When it rains, you don’t have to be sad and lonesome. Go outside and splash in the puddles and play.”
- I want the world to learn how to listen and feel empathy. I want people to put their eyes on the people that matter most.
This is only a small portion of the important messages given to me two days ago. As I’ve read and re-read the cards, prevailing themes emerge – time, presence, acceptance, love – that is what they need, that is what they want to be, that is what is most important. It now makes sense that there was one point in my presentation where you could’ve heard a pin drop. It happened at the same moment in all four sessions.
I was holding up my first published article in Reader’s Digest. The article was titled, “The Teacher Who Ran.” The story was about one of my special education students with Intermittent Explosive Disorder. One morning, he became very agitated and decided to run. He ran out of the school into a heavily trafficked six-lane road. Although I was in dress shoes and school clothes, I ran after him. For nearly a mile, we ran. My student kept looking back. He seemed shocked I was there, refusing to give up on him.
“You can keep running, but I won’t give up!” I replayed the words I’d said that day to the students in front of me. “I didn’t have to ‘fix’ him. I didn’t need to save him from his current situation. I didn’t have to have the answers. I just needed to be there—to love him and support him … and that made all the difference,” I said to the room of captivated students.
It was the only time in my presentation that my voice cracked, but the students’ eyes indicated it was okay.
They let me be real.
I let them be real.
And from that beautiful place of shared vulnerability, a priceless set of cards was produced.
How will we choose to play them?
Perhaps we should start by asking the people we love that same powerful question: What would tell the world if you knew it was listening?
Perhaps a theme will emerge and we’ll see what they need from us, the people who are their world. Whether it’s time, love, acceptance, support, presence, or belief, let’s remember we have it to give. And even if we have to move mountains, break down barriers, swallow our pride, or run until our legs can run no more, let’s not give up.
Our precious ones might look back, surprised to see us there.
They might wonder what took us so long.
But in the end, they’ll be grateful we finally heard their call … and answered it with love.
My friends, if you want to provide what your loved ones need but are unsure of where to start … if your life feels joyless, overwhelming, stressful, and empty and you don’t know how to change … if you’re hungry for small doses of positivity to combat the negativity in you or around you, I have written a unique book that provides guidance in highly applicable way. ONLY LOVE TODAY is a non-structured, flip open, read for two minutes and be inspired source of encouragement. With any pre-order of ONLY LOVE TODAY, comes a beautiful set of hand-lettered reminders to help you focus on what is most important. Click here to see how to easily claim your gifts. JUST ANNOUNCED: If you would like a signed copy of ONLY LOVE TODAY, you are in luck! Signed by my loving hand (and one with Avery’s special touch) are now available at barnesandnoble.com while quantities last. Friends of the Hands Free Revolution, thank you for listening to the children and to each other. Please help spread the love by sharing this post with someone today. I am so grateful for your support! #onlylovetoday
Sandy Blackard says
Rachel, touching and powerful post. You were the essence of Only Love Today in those classrooms. Love listens and changes the world <3
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you so much, Sandy! I am still in awe of what those students courageously shared and the depth of their wisdom and insight.
Laura Jane says
Thank you, Rachel, for being a voice for the voiceless, and for using your time in those classrooms in such a beautiful way. I remember what it feels like to be a teen with no one to turn to — what a heavy weight that is. If even for a moment, you gave those kids the chance to put down that burden, to breathe. I’m treasuring what they’ve said… especially the pleas for more time and attention from their families. It’s heartbreaking… but today is a new day, as you’ve written so eloquently in Only Love Today, which I am loving reading:) It is beautiful and powerful. Hugs and blessings to you, friend!
Rachel Stafford says
I appreciate you taking the time to read & thoughtfully comment. It is so affirming to my writer’s heart. What a blessing you are!
How beautiful. Thank you for this.
Melissa K says
It took a few days to allow myself to read this….absolutely beautiful. I want to get out and into the classrooms of many schools and spread that message of taking off the pressures of society, loving kindness and finding acceptance of yourself and others. A seed was planted a while ago about this idea and my soul tells me that God is getting me ready to find a way to do that type of work. In the mean time, I will cotinue to try my best to show up, be fully present and spread: love, kindness and acceptance! Thank you Rachel for taking the time to truly listen to all of those kids!!! Hugs to you 😉
Rachel Stafford says
I love this so much, Melissa. Thank you for voicing the pull on your heart. It is a worthy cause and I pray that you are able to put it into action. Keep us posted please. With love and optimism – RMS
Ari Yares says
I’m always amazed by how willing middle school students are to share of themselves. I shouldn’t be, though. If we create an environment of trust and honesty, they will open themselves up. Thank you for sharing this.
This is an amazing project! What those students had to say is so powerful and I hope they felt heard.