It takes special people to work at a middle school. It requires people with patience, kindness, creativity, a sense of humor, and a generosity of spirit that makes room for students to learn lessons that go far beyond readin', writin', and 'rithmatic. Yep, the teachers need all those things - but they are not who this story is about.
Earlier this fall, as I began what was to be a three month substitute assignment as the interim principal at Monroe Clark Middle School in City Heights, I met Miss Marie, the administrative assistant who runs the school office. With a 1,000 kilowatt smile and a jar of peanut M & M's, she keeps the staff and students in line and moving in the right direction as they come into the office with questions and problems to solve.
She sees and hears everything that goes on at school. She knows whose late or why they are absent. She listens to excuses. She knows who is in trouble and how to get hold of the people who need to know it. She knows where the band-aids and the box of tissues are ... and that peanut M & M's have power to heal.
I had already witnessed her excited involvement in the annual Halloween Dance, so I wasn't particularly surprised when I heard that she was the initiator of a Thanksgiving contest. The best essays from students who wrote one page about what they were thankful for would win a turkey to take home for their family's Thanksgiving dinner. What I was surprised by was that she intended to buy the turkeys herself, but it didn't make me happy. This was a cause that needed the attention of more than one person's generosity.
All of us were surprised that we had received forty-three essays the day before the contest was to end. But what was more remarkable was the thirty more that came in on the last day! Seventy-three students submitted heart wrenching essays about thankfulness and appreciation. The words of the students were humbling as they recounted the things in their lives that they appreciate: food, clothing, the sacrifices of their parents, and a loving family to come home to. They wrote about appreciating their teachers, too - who knew! Here are just a few of the things they said:
"Usually my mom would receive a free turkey at work, but she is so kind she gives it out to the homeless. This year, if I win the turkey I hope I can finally have a thanksgiving dinner with my family."
"Many people grow up without a father. I am thankful that I have a step-dad. Even though he's not my real father I got to have the experience of having a dad."
"I am thankful for teachers who try everything in their power to make us learn."
"I am so thankful for the life I have right now, because my childhood was not wonderful ... but the most important FOR ME is that I'm so thankful for God. No matter what happens I'm always going to be thankful for God, because thanks to him I am alive. Thanks to him I have what I need."
When I called a friend in the choir to see if it would be possible to pass the hat at Thursday's rehearsal to buy some turkeys, she reminded me that Elaine Johnson was spearheading a "Fill the Bag" drive to provide a full Thanksgiving dinner for families in need. Maybe there would be a few bags that were not already dedicated to other individuals and groups. Elaine agreed to help us if she could.
What wasn't surprising, was the generosity of RB Community Church. You made it possible for 16 bags of groceries and 32 turkeys to go home with grateful students just before the Thanksgiving holiday. And maybe just as important was how you were unwitting models for many more people who stepped up and helped Miss Marie with the organization of the effort to distribute them.
It's way to easy to take a good life for granted and I am certainly guilty of that. Today I am grateful to be part of a church that cares about people they have never met in a way that creates the opening for God to enter their hearts. One person had an idea, and that generosity of spirit ended up touching many more than the lives of families that received turkey dinners.
Thanks be to God.