Last week, I substituted in a fifth grade classroom. As I directed a transition into math lab, I was swarmed by students asking for their forgotten passwords, informing me of trivial fractures in iPad cases, and explaining how they had already done all of the assigned work but the system hadn’t logged it. Through it all, one girl hung to the back against the wall looking nervous.
When the others had cleared away and been set to doing their assignments (or re-doing them, if they were to be believed), she came forward and held her notebook out to me. On the page, in simple but artful penstrokes, was sketched an upside-down hand with an eye set in its palm. “Do you know what this means?” she asked.
I smiled. “It is the Hand of Fatima,” I said. “It’s a Muslim sign. Fatima was the favoured daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and her hand brings good fortune. It is a very holy symbol.”
A tension I had not fully perceived rolled off her shoulders like an ice sheet separating from the coast, and she sighed with a great, relaxed smile. “Whew, I thought it was a demon.”
I asked her where she had encountered it, and she told me that it has been coming to her in her dreams, and that her mother, who was clearly not Muslim, was concerned that it was demonic. II directed her to a couple of articles on it to read, to her great delight, and told her to take the rest of the period to get acquainted with this sign that clearly had something to tell her.
Throughout the rest of the period, a smile spread farther and farther across her face and, when the bell rang, I glanced over at her notebook one last time before she put it away. There, her timid little sketch had begun to be lovingly transformed by colored pencil into a magnificent drawing.
And so I smiled, too.
Today one of my students had a really bad day. She pulled another girl’s hair.
I made it a worse day, and sent her to sit in a corner. That, in itself, was an ordeal, but at last she went and sat. “Now that you’re sitting,” I said, “we can talk. Tell me what’s going on.”
Here, I thought, was a blog post on how discipline and obedience are necessary prerequisites of benevolence along the Golden Chain, but then something much more significant happened; she began to talk.
At first, this being elementary school, it was a lot of blubbering and recrimination. Choked sobs hiccuping out, “She’s been mean to me all day! She tried to bite me! She did it first!” Then something came from the heart. “Where are my mom and dad? Why don’t they come?”
Here, I thought, was the real issue. It was aftercare, and very late in the afternoon. She felt abandoned and was lashing out. Poor thing, I thought, to carry so much anger.
More accusations. More excuses. More complaints. And then a sentence that changed my whole view of the room. “My dad’s sick.” I said nothing. Her eyes broke from mine. “My dad always makes us dinner.”
“Does he not make dinner anymore,” I asked, “because he’s sick?”
There have been moments in my life—when I heard the homeless man play violin in the Joliette metro station, when the bird I was trying to save died at the SGI center, when my spirit broke on the bus to the firing range—when I could… I want to say see… how Her love holds all the atoms together, holds my soul together, holds our whole human family together (The Clew of Love, vv. 4-5). This was one of those moments, as I realized that it was out of a pain of love that this little girl had pulled another’s hair.
It is my greatest frustration as a teacher that in no regular school classroom do we ever teach those things that lead to the cessation of suffering. Algebra and US history are all very well, but they do not overcome fear and desire, and they do not heal kear.
In the classroom, there was a book entitled How Do Apples Grow?, filled with many fine botanical facts. I imagine a book entitled Why Do Apples Grow?, which would be written by Julian of Norwich. When one turns the cover, there is only a single page…
“Because God loves them.”
And in that book would be more than all our years of schooling ever teach.