It Takes a Village

As I grow older and wiser, I reflect on life’s lessons more than I did 20 years ago.  I see the silver lining in tragedy; I find joy when there seems to be none, and I have faith that storms are temporary. That’s my perspective in a nice, little box.

This past week has been filled with many valley moments, a few mountain top moments, and many opportunities to learn along the way. Because I work in a school, I have the privilege of experiencing middle school a second time, and sometimes I wonder if my middle school teachers, principals, cafe workers, and custodians saw (back then) what I see now. I see many ways that adults can assume roles in children’s lives, but I find that teachers, oft times, are expected to take on most of those roles.  Many of them do, and it leads to burnout. It takes a village to raise a child, and the entire village needs to step up. Some might say, “It’s not my problem. I have my own kids to worry about.” Others will just look at the problem, comment on it, and do nothing. And then there are those who just don’t know where they fit in. I get it — all perspectives. I even understand why some might take the hands-off approach, so I’m not judging when I say this. We the village no longer have permission to correct, discipline, or advise your children without fear of reprisal.

When I was a child, every adult in my neighborhood had permission to hem me up if I got out of line.  Any adult at church or school also had permission to correct me. It was understood. If I crossed the street without looking both ways, my mother knew about it before I made it back home.

What’s faster than a seven year old running to the corner store to buy candy?

An old lady’s finger dialing your mom’s number on her rotary phone.

I was telling a story to my friends Gail and Michele at lunch the other day about the antiquated practice of corporal punishment in the South. I shared a story about a high school kid named Quincy whose mouth got him into trouble one day.  I was a teacher at the time, and though I didn’t teach Quincy, he usually ended up in my class as his punishment. Go figure. On one of the few days that he actually showed up at school, he made a comment to a teacher that no one should ever make, and it landed him in the principal’s office. The principal called his mother to say that he planned to paddle Quincy but felt uncomfortable doing so. Now, Quincy wasn’t a big kid, but you had to protect yourself around him — primarily your feelings. When he was angry, he’d say things that might even prompt the Pope to pick up a paddle. Fast forward about 30 minutes, and Quincy’s mother had made it to the school. Although she had given the principal permission to paddle her son, she left work to make sure that Quincy got the message that his behavior was unacceptable. I was nearby and heard the exchange. I think he got the message. Not all parents are like Quincy’s. Some would prefer that we stay in our places and only assume the role that we’ve been contracted to do — teach, lead, serve, and clean. Fortunately for our kids, we choose to do so much more.

While chatting with a struggling student this week, I expressed to him that middle school is tough. To that, he agreed. As adults, we see kids’ problems as small because as adults, we’ve conquered those problems and have learned to cope. To them, their problems are all-consuming, and they can’t see past them. That’s where we step in to steady them, quell their fears, and dry their tears (and there are lots of tears in middle school). In that moment, I begged the Lord to give me some direction, a few words, or just discernment. After a very long period of silence, the words that finally got his attention were words I had uttered a half hour earlier.

When you’re as old as I am, you won’t even remember middle school. All I remember is Mrs. Hodge putting a big, red X on my spelling test. The word was “probably” — written in cursive. I was a five-time spelling bee champ, so I could spell, but my cursive was terrible. I have printed ever since.

He grinned and then asked “Would you ever go visit that teacher to say look at me now?” I told him that I actually taught with her the year before she retired, and she was one of the sweetest ladies I’d ever met. I had to tell her that she was mistaken all those years ago — to which she replied with a sheepish grin — no words, just that grin. He found that funny. Although it was at my expense, it was nice to hear him laugh. He told me that when he’s older, he would come back to visit Mrs. Case. I asked why, and he lit up in a way I hadn’t seen before. He said, “I just like her class. I can’t explain it. I just really like her class.” I gave him that same sheepish grin that Mrs. Hodge had given me, but I also said, “That’s cool. I’ll tell her you said that.” He smiled again.

Something good came out of that exchange. Though I didn’t remain in the role that I had been assigned that day, I think that it was necessary for me to assess the needs of this student and adjust accordingly. There’s nothing special or admirable about what I did. Most people in my building would do the same thing or find someone else who could do it.

The middle years are tough. I say it every day.  Our kids are so fragile.  They may appear ok and say that they’re fine, but they’re not all fine. Look closer. Dig deeper. Spend a little time with them, and show them you care. Include them. It’s just easier that way. If you don’t, they’ll find a way to get your attention.

If you work with kids in any capacity, you are the village people (I know you’re snickering because I called you The Village People.). Find a way to include those who aren’t part of a group, who don’t have friends, or who sit alone at lunch. Make the offer, and they will come. Tap into their strengths, their needs, their aspirations, and just provide the space and time. They will come.

Note — I’m thankful that a few of the village people from my childhood are still around. We still need the village as we age. Don’t think for one second that you’re fine without them. They’re waiting on you. Rely on them. Include them. It’s just easier that way, and you’ll be glad you did.