“I want to do something splendid … Something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead,” wrote Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.
I read Little Women in 1968; 100 years after it was first published.
“A significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us and those around us more effectively,” Alcott explained. “Look for the learning.”
I wanted to emulate Alcott’s passionate ability to inspire others – so, I became a teacher.
I once worked in an urban school district that moved teachers from one building to another every year. I was transferred to an elementary school to teach writing to seventh graders.
The night before my first day of instruction, a man’s body was found in a car on the school parking lot. The staff was more upset about the addition of sixth and seventh grades to their K-5 school. The sixth and seventh grade students were not welcome in their school. Neither was I.
I entered a classroom with 20 desks for 30 students. There were no books or resources provided for instruction. I swallowed my anger and purchased notebooks and pencils, pens and paper. Alcott’s words, “Look for the learning,” challenged me to make the most of the opportunities and find alternative resources.
I purchased novels written by a diverse pool of authors such as Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper, Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, and Wandering Warrior by Da Chen. Students were excited to read about children who looked like them and shared their experiences.
As weeks rolled into months, there was still no sign of textbooks. I was grateful for opportunities to explore creative instruction, but the search was labor intensive. And expensive. I posted an ad on Craigslist.com:
I am an inner-city teacher in the urban core. We need of pencils, paper, and classroom materials. Please contact me for more information.
Many angry adults responded to my post by ranting about the brokenness of the district and its inability to manage its money. They blamed me for not having the resources I needed to teach my students. One day, I received an email from a woman named DJ:
I saw your email on Craigslist. What do you need?
I was stunned and eagerly replied to DJ’s email:
Thank you for your kind response. My kids remind me why I entered teaching in the first place. They are so grateful for everything I share with them in the classroom, but I’m running out of money. Many thanks for any assistance you can provide to help me find classroom resources and books for them.
DJ and I agreed to meet on a Saturday afternoon. A charming woman with blond hair and a bright smile steered a van into my driveway. DJ and her son unpacked ten large boxes filled with books, paper, pencils, notebooks, erasers, reward tokens, stickers, paint brushes, scissors, colored pencils, large jugs of paint, felt, glue, craft sticks, puzzles, and paperback novels. I cried.
As an experienced Craigslist connoisseur, DJ explained where I could find good values throughout the city. She found a company who wanted to donate 500 binders and folders to our school. She told me about pallet sales and how to recognize dishonest deals that seemed too good to be true. She forwarded postings she thought would be useful to me and the students. In the weeks that followed, I discovered posts written by DJ on Craigslist:
“I am helping an urban teacher. We need …”
“I” had become “we” and, together, we formed a team to provide our students with supplies needed to be successful at school. Our classroom had become so well stocked that I … we … had plenty of materials to share with other teachers. Students and teachers called me their “Fairy Godmother.” DJ was the “Guardian Angel” who adopted a school.
On a cold day after Thanksgiving, DJ stopped by my home to drop off another load of boxes packed with school supplies.
“What are we going to get our kids for Christmas?” she asked.
DJ and I posted requests for Christmas presents for our students on Craigslist. Generous families donated games, stuffed animals, and sports equipment. A generous donation of art supplies were used by students to create scarves and aprons for their parents. The children were delighted to open gifts on the last day before the winter holidays.
“This is so good!” laughed Raymond as he rolled a basketball around in his hands.
“What is so good, Raymond?” I asked.
“I haven’t got Christmas present before,” he cheerfully replied.
James looked around to make sure no one saw him stuff a frilly teddy bear into his backpack.
I asked James to take a note to the office. I followed him into the hall.
“Did you get a present?” I asked James.
“Yeah, but I didn’t want everybody to laugh at me,” he mumbled.
“I won’t laugh,” I promised.
“I got a teddy bear. For my little sister,” he admitted. “I get stuff from you and the angel lady all the time. My sister will get a Christmas present this year.”
He looked at the note I gave him.
“Thank you?” he asked. “Is this for the principal?”
“No. It’s for you, James,” I replied. “It’s a thank you note your little sister will give you one day when she learns how to write.”
DJ joined us on field trips. She secured tickets for plays. She also found ways for students to practice their writing skills and engage in community service. One day, I received an e-mail from DJ about a woman who posted a request for greeting cards on Craigslist:
I am looking for cards of kindness for my sister. Both our parents passed away. She had to have a surgery that went horribly wrong. Because of this, she lost her job. She is so sad. I thought it would be nice for her to get cards to cheer her up and remind her that there is still good in the world.
Students were delighted to design cards and wrote beautiful, heartwarming letters. We stuffed letters into a large envelope and forwarded it to DJ – who forwarded it to the woman who made the request. We routinely created cheerful cards and addressed them to nursing homes and hospitals throughout the rest of the school year.
During the summer months, DJ and I made plans for the upcoming school year. In August, I was transferred; a principal in the district wanted me to be their instructional coach. DJ moved to another city. That magical year of teaching, my partnership with DJ, and my relationships with those kids changed me forever.
Master teacher, Dr. Rita Pierson, once said, “Learning sometimes occurs because someone insists that you recognize the excellence in yourself.” When we see and appreciate potential in others, they learn to see it in themselves. Miraculous transformations happen.
Louisa May Alcott wrote, “Far way there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they may lead.”
I am grateful to DJ and all of those who motivate us to pursue our highest aspirations. Our stories continue to overlap and connect and unfold. It is in the simple and sacred act of sharing the best of what we have and who we are that guide us from where we are to where we want to be.
Who is your guardian angel? How are you an angel to others?
Use these suggestions from How to Be a Good Role Model to pump up the example you want to inspire teens.
Young people are speaking up. Are you listening? Read Hear the Voices of Our Youth.
Discover powerful stories by urban junior high students in Voices in the City School.
Encourage youth to explore their passions. Discover Why We Must Talk to Young People About Their Dreams.
Listen to Dr. Rita Pierson’s powerful TED talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion.