One of the lessons I have learned with age and experience is we are given spiritual gifts on a regular basis. Just as I became open to witnessing miracles regularly—and then I actually began to experience them—I believe that if I can open my eyes a little wider, I will be able see more of the wonderful gifts that have been offered to me.
After I retired from teaching at the Juvenile Detention Center, I began volunteering at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen on Assistance Day. That’s the day, usually the second Wednesday of each month, when people coming through the front door can get help applying and paying for state IDs and birth certificates. Guests who need this kind of help may be homeless, new to the area or recently released from incarceration. It seems their lives are often chaotic, and they may have lost their personal belongings or had them stolen. People who have recently reentered from the correctional system are rarely provided any kind of help or even the papers needed to get a fresh start.
I occasionally meet former students at the Soup Kitchen, but last month I had wonderful encounters with three different people. As I was stepping into the little office to use the copy machine, a young man seated near the door gave me a huge grin. “Hey, did you use to teach at JDC?” he asked. When I told him I did, he immediately claimed that I was the best teacher he had ever had. I thanked him, of course, but my initial response was to totally discount the compliment. After all, I knew that he would have had to been exposed to many teachers more knowledgeable than I, people who were experts in various school subjects.
Then he brought up how we always sang “The Birdie Song.”
He told me when he left detention, he was “sent up to the Doc,” a euphemism for being sentenced to the Departments of Corrections. Then he went on to tell me that while he was there, thinking of that song helped him feel not so sad. He concluded the brief conversation by saying to me, “You’ll never know how much you helped me!”
That’s the point where I shifted my thoughts and began to focus on the incredible gift I had been given with this meeting.
I realized that, though I am definitely not the best teacher or the best anything, I was exactly who this boy needed at that time of his life. And, to know I had contributed something positive to him in the midst of all his turmoil, immediately caused my heart to overflow with feelings of gratitude and joy.
A few minutes later, I noticed a smiling, bright young woman, another soul who had once spent time in detention.
It had been so long that she hadn’t recognized me at first, though she herself had not changed much over the years. Her life, as I remember, had been pretty difficult. She had grown up in an institution, a group home for children removed from their parents. Many of the residents of the home were children with significant mental health issues. When she was first detained, she was, as many children are, quite distraught. She cried and she wailed, it seemed, for days on end. I believe she had grown up with chaos and drama, and she brought it all with her when she came to detention. And then, after some time had passed, she became comfortable with the staff and things calmed down.
She eventually left, but one Christmas she returned, padding in in her fuzzy house slippers through the front door of the detention center, bearing gifts for the superintendent and one of the supervisors.
Seeing her years later, as much as I would like to hope, I have no illusions that her life has become easy. She was at the Soup Kitchen to get a hot meal. She has a young child and was there applying for his birth certificate. Despite the many challenges she deals with, she displays qualities that, in my opinion, count for a lot—perseverance and a resilient spirit. On top of that, add her beautiful smile and heartfelt embrace, the two things I personally experienced as we said goodbye.
A short time later, when our work was done and I was walking out the front door of the Soup Kitchen, a guy stopped me.
“Hey, are you Miss So-and-so?” he asked.
“No,” I answered.
He told me I looked just like his third-grade teacher. Since I thought he could have been a former student, I told him I hadn’t taught third grade but that I had taught at detention. He decided then that that was why I looked familiar.
“Didn’t we use to sing a song there about a little bird?” he wanted to know. I reminded him it was called “The Birdie Song.” He went on to say he couldn’t remember all the words, so I started singing the first line. “Away in the sky the little birds fly ….”
He immediately joined in, singing and flapping one of his arms/wings with me. There were a few others standing nearby on the sidewalk, but we continued to sing and do the hand motions to the entire song, he with a cigarette dangling from his lips the whole time. What a funny scene it was!
Once the song was finished, we said goodbye, and I walked to the parking lot and got into my car.
There I took a moment, I took a deep breath, and I uttered a “thank you” for the incredible gifts I was given that morning. At that moment, I don’t believe my heart could have held any more.
Nancy Kidd, a former Juvenile Detention Center teacher, loves her husband and two grown sons, playing piano to make people smile and the idea of finding out what the next joy around the corner might be.