“And I’m fractured
From the fall
And I wanna go home
Now it takes two
And it used to take one
It takes two
And it used to take only one”
-Ryan Adams, Two
*name has been changed
*Stephen was one of twelve students in my classroom for children with severe behavior disorders. These children had been repeatedly kicked out of regular education classrooms and alternative schools. My classroom – that I taught with a co-teacher – was their last hope. To call this class of twelve students “challenging” was a severe understatement, but I’d accepted this challenge after reading through twelve massive educational files. Although I tried, it was unimaginable how twelve children could endure so much heartache in such a short time on earth.
Because of the trauma these children had endured, my heart was sympathetic to them. When they tried to hurt me, I held them. When they cussed me out, I did not take it personally. When they ran away, I ran after them. I knew they needed love more than anything, and that is what I vowed to give them while they were in my presence.
Their parents were another story. With every documented incident of abuse and neglect in their child’s file, my sympathy diminished. I found it impossible to love and accept the parents as I did their children, no matter how hard I tried.
Stephen’s mother was the hardest. Her beautiful, blue-eyed child came to school harboring such hatred in his heart. He used vile terms for anyone who was different than him—and difference was abundant in my classroom.
The one time Stephen’s mother came in regarding a behavior issue, she blamed two students for reasons that revealed deep-seated racism. When I pointed out the facts of the situation, she said vile things about me, my teaching ability, and my beliefs. The assumptions she made about me were so far off base and untrue, I was left speechless … and angry … and deeply offended. I hoped I would never have to be in the same room again with her as long as I lived.
Around Thanksgiving time, my co-teacher was inspired to provide the children with a memorable experience. With our help, the students would each make a traditional Thanksgiving dish. We would use the life skills and social skills they’d recently learned to enjoy a meal together.
I can’t remember the conversation exactly, but I believe my colleague and I talked about inviting the students’ parents. If I had to guess, I think I said something like, “Most of them won’t come anyway. That will just disappoint the kids. How about we let them invite their favorite school staff member instead?”
I would like to say I did that for the kids. But truthfully, I didn’t want to be around Stephen’s mother after the way she had offended me. I didn’t want to be around someone with beliefs so different than mine.
A few weeks later, our twelve precious students proudly revealed a long, colorfully decorated table of food to their beloved principal, associate principal, music teacher, and occupational therapist. Miraculously, the students had prepared the feast with only a few minor blow ups and breakdowns. As we dug in joyfully, Stephen leaned over to me.
“If y’all didn’t do this, I would never know the taste of turkey.”
I swallowed hard.
“My dad hates Thanksgiving so we don’t have it,” he continued. “My mom said to be sure and thank you.” And with that, he wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me with all his might.
“Well, I sure wish we would have invited her,” I squeaked out, feeling about two inches tall.
“Next time,” Stephen said. “We’ll do this every year, Mrs. Stafford, and Mom can come next time,” he smiled.
Unfortunately, there was no next time.
Stephen’s family moved that spring, but not before his mother came in to say goodbye.
“You’ve been good to him,” she told me as she wrung her hands together nervously. “He never liked going to school ‘til this year.”
“Well, Stephen is very smart. If I need help fixing anything in the classroom, Stephen always offers to do it! He’s been such a good helper to me.” I said. “I know he is going to be just fine in Ohio.”
“He cried about leaving you,” she confided about her tough boy. Then she looked down at her shoes. “I know this is probably not appropriate, but can we have your address so we can write back and forth?”
I felt a tinge of worry. I thought back on the violent incidents I’d read about in his confidential file. I hoped and prayed this mother’s intent was good and wrote my address on a piece of paper and handed it to her.
For nearly five years, I received two and three-page letters from Stephen and his mother. Bit by bit, his mother shared with me her story; she showed me her scars; she revealed her pain and insecurities; she asked for guidance to be the best mother she could to her three children despite very challenging life circumstances.
I wrote back to her with advice, encouragement, and love. Each time I sealed the envelope and put it in the mailbox, I felt hopeful. I felt certain this divinely orchestrated connection would prove to be far more than an understanding between two very different women.
And it did.
You see, I think about Stephen’s mother a lot – particularly when my beliefs and opinions clash with someone else’s … when I have a choice to engage with or dismiss someone whose beliefs offend my own. I think about her when I have a chance to invite or exclude people who minimize or belittle issues I deeply care about. Stephen’s mother helps me choose love … effort … understanding … compassion.
Because honestly, I will forever live with the regret that I did not invite her to my table.
But all hope is not lost.
I have more chances … and one of them is coming up on December 25.
And so do you, my friends.
Perhaps you’ve realized you have the same choice – and maybe it’s weighing heavily on your heart … creating angst and dread … causing you to consider cancelling altogether.
I would encourage you to sit down at the table …
With the person who offended you
With the person who doesn’t see who you really are
Sit down at the table …
With the person who can’t see past his or her own beliefs
With the person you find impossible to love.
Take a seat across from the person with whom you’ll most likely never see eye to eye.
Bring extra patience and extra openness, if you must—but sit down at the table.
Extending love to someone with a differing opinion does not mean you are agreeing with her or forsaking your beliefs – it shows you’re committed to moving toward a positive future.
Extending love to someone who revealed an unbecoming side of himself doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten – it shows you’re willing to see his story and scars within.
Extending love to someone who offended you does not mean you’re accepting such treatment – it means you realize you cannot thrive in a place of anger and resentment.
Extending love to someone who holds ill will towards you does not mean you don’t care – it means your life is not based on the opinions of others.
Sitting down at the table despite past hurts and current turmoil shows you’re willing to see what an open heart can do to mend wounds, break down barriers, and create positive change for yourself and future generations.
Sit down at the table.
It might be your only chance to acknowledge that yes, you’re coming from vastly different places, but where you want to go is virtually the same.
Sit down at the table.
It might be your only chance to find out what the most unlikely, but truly extraordinary type of love tastes like.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mama, Hands Free Life, and Only Love Today. “Only Love Today” began as a mantra to overcome her inner bully, but it is now the practice of her life. It can be a practice for all of us. Join this certified special education teacher for her new online course, SOUL SHIFT. Through short videos, small habit shifts, and inspiring intentions, Rachel will take you step-by-step through the process she used to go from a critical, unfulfilled, and distracted existence to being a present and joyful participant of her life. Enter your email address here to be notified when SOUL SHIFT registration opens on January 8, 2018 at a discounted price. Please join Rachel and her supportive community, The Hands Free Revolution, for more daily inspiration.
Originally published at www.handsfreemama.com