A long time admirer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, recently I studied her life more closely. I have taken to studying female saints and other wise women believing their lives, lived decades or centuries ago, hold timeless illuminations. I knew Mother Teresa had some things to teach me. Mother Teresa's mission to the poor and dying in India came to the attention of the American people through the writings of Malcom Muggeridge. His work is in a book titled, "Something Beautiful for God." I was given this book for college graduation over 30 years ago and ever since then, I've been a fan. Mother Teresa believed each person needed to be touched by love and smiles. Sometimes she was criticized for her work because it was thought that she didn't do enough to change systems, rather she focused on small works for the poor and dying. 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." Mother Teresa believed that if you encountered one person who needed love and care you give it, never minding what happened after that. She was also big on smiling. Small things withe great 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 this simple phrase mean to me?
Working for the large 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'd love to change most things about the institution of school but my calling seems to be the classroom, not the boardroom. I find myself wondering if what my staff and I do matters and I sometimes allow myself a nice long soak in the pool of despair. 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 so irrelevant. One. One. One. Their parents should do more. One. One. One. State Assessments are ridiculous. One. One. One.
A kiddo new to our school entered the beginning of the year. 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 behaviors to deploy. 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 (quite successfully) lots of attention.
Like Mother Teresa, he's been a teacher to me and he's been surprisingly teachable as well. After a two day grace period (for me as well as him as I wasn't sure what the heck to do) we started slowly turning things around. He was a regular visit to the safe seat, he learned to calm himself by looking at books and 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. And I smiled at him. A lot. One day, about three weeks into the school year, he raised his hand (glory hallelujah) and waited to be called on (endless joy!) and then 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 quite 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 announced that he wanted to fill it with trains and I had no idea if and how it would be returned. However, as requested, he returned Friday morning with 100 little circles in his bag. Upon closer look, I saw that the bag contained one hundred 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 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.
It's an equation this teacher/learner will never forget.