One Hundred Paper Smiles

Feast of the Holy Great Martyr Photine, the Samaritan Woman

Mother_Teresa_Square.jpegI'M BLESSED to be a part of a group of women who study the lives of saints and wise women (artists, writers, mothers, and more) who have walked the ancient paths of holiness. My friends and I study them because we believe they have a great deal to teach us about renewing our lives and living our faith in a modern world. The women we learn about fought their own battles; some we understand and some we don’t. But like us, they sought to live faithfully and to bring the light of God into the darkness. The words of these women are instructive and truthful. When I read these ancient works, which were miraculously preserved, so often they are exactly what I need in my life. They fall, like manna from heaven, to my spiritually hungry soul.

Always an admirer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, recently I studied her life more closely in order to someday present her to my sisters in the faith. I knew Mother Teresa had some things to teach me. She is well known and currently considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. Malcom Muggeridge brought her work in India among the poor and dying to the attention of Americans. I became aware of her when, at my college graduation, a friend gave me a copy of the book Muggeridge wrote about Mother Teresa titled “Something Beautiful for God.” My friend inscribed the book, noting that she hoped my life as a teacher would also be something beautiful for God. I took it to heart.

As I studied the life of Mother Teresa, I learned she was sometimes criticized for her work for focusing on small works for the poor and dying instead of doing more to change systems. Her work did in time actually result in some rather large organizations and services in India and beyond. But her mission was summed up in one of her most frequently used expressions in the Hindi language, "Ek. Ek. Ek." Translated in English, it's "One, One, One." The poor and dying men and women she encountered in the streets of Calcutta were the essence of her work. Take care of the one man, the one woman, show the one in front of you the love of God and smile. Always smile. One. One. One. Love. One. One. One. This phrase became a mantra I couldn't shake from my mind so I invited it in to stay. What, I wondered, will these words teach me and how would it help me bring more meaning to my daily life and to my work as a teacher?

Working for a large public school system with a sometimes challenging, always beautiful, population of students with intellectual disabilities, I find myself frustrated with the big and crazy things we do in the name of education. I think often about how to change the system. But I definitely feel more at home in the classroom than the boardroom. I wonder if what my staff and I do matters and I sometimes allow myself a nice long soak in the pool of despair. Then the voice comes: "One. One. One." But I'm tired, I say. One. One. One. This kid is too hard. One.One. One. The curriculum is dumb. One. One. One. Their parents should do more. One. One. One. State Assessments are ridiculous. One. One. One. Really God? You think I can help that kid? One. One. One.

A student new to our school began the year in my class. Loaded with personality and willingness to learn, he was easy to like. He was, however, capable of disrupting the quiet little classroom I had envisioned and tried to create for myself and my students. He had a quiver full of devious skills. Luckily he made it easy to figure out the motivation behind his behavior. "Hey guys, watch this!" he'd say as he threw something across the room. "Like THIS guys?" he'd shout as he slammed a door. Casting a sideways glance in my direction, he'd shove the student next to him. The minute I'd open my mouth to address the class, he'd start shouting at the top of his lungs. He was seeking (and getting) lots of attention.

Like Mother Teresa, he's been a teacher to me. He's also been surprisingly teachable. After a two-day grace period (for me as well as him, as I wasn't sure what to do), things slowly began to turn around. He was a regular visit to the safe seat, where he learned to calm himself by looking at books and by rearranging them on the bookshelves. We practiced positive behaviors until I was tired of hearing myself talk. He liked side hugs and even when he smelled like a fifth-grade boy, I was liberal with them. One day, about three weeks into the school year, he raised his hand (glory hallelujah) and actually waited to be called upon (endless joy!). He said, "Mrs. Awe? I calm." And indeed he was.

It's been a long road and it hasn't always been easy. When he's difficult, it's really disruptive and even maddening. But he is a different kid than he was at the beginning of the year. And he is, more often than not, a positive member of our small classroom community.

Recently we celebrated 100 days of school. He took home his little baggie with a note requesting that he bring back one hundred things that would fit into his bag. He returned Friday morning with 100 paper smiles. He and some of his family members had spent the previous evening cutting out and decorating all these happy faces in a variety of colors and sizes. When he presented it me, with his head bowed and his signature "I can't quite maintain eye contact" posture, the look of pride and happiness on his face went straight to my heart.

One. One. One. It can add up to one hundred smiles that I have to think Mother Teresa could appreciate. Sometimes one equals one hundred. It's an equation this teacher / learner will never forget.

Ellen Herr Awe lives in Wichita and teaches for USD 259. She reads as much as possible, tends a little garden and cherishes spending time with her grandson.

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