I was standing in front of a fresh class of third graders on the first day of school. I saw the usual excited, expectant faces ... except for one boy. He'd taken a desk in the back of the room near the door, as if to prepare for a quick escape.
His hair hung over his eyes. Not that I could see his eyes, because he was staring down at the desktop. His clothes were too big for his scrawny frame. Other than what I saw, I didn't know more than his name: Ryan. He struck me as the sort of student who had done poorly in earlier grades, and perhaps now hated school. It would be my job to get him to like it. After 26 years of teaching, I was confident I could do it.
As a first-day exercise, I had the students sit on the floor in a circle and tell me the good things they remembered about one another from second grade. Ryan wouldn't move from his desk. He sat there picking at his shoe while the others talked and joked. Maybe it's just back-to-school jitters, I told myself. Later that week I had the students arrange their desks in a circle, thinking, Now Ryan will have to participate. But when his turn to talk came, he just slouched and stared at his desk.
That's how it went for the first couple of weeks – Ryan would not take part in anything, be it music, math, art or English. He wouldn't talk to me or to any of his classmates. Even more worrisome, I never saw him smile. I began to suspect he was a victim of neglect and abuse. There was a dead look in Ryan's eyes, as if he'd drawn an invisible curtain around himself. I knew that look.
The lifeless stare, the hopeless attitude, the fear that never let up. I'd seen it before, reflected in the mirror. I grew up in a home where there were beatings. I had been withdrawn, like Ryan. Once, when I was just about Ryan's age, my father, drunk, slammed me against our old woodstove. My head hit hard and blood gushed from my scalp. I was sent to bed.
The next morning I couldn't get a brush through my hair, matted as it was with dried blood. I dragged myself to school anyway. My teacher took one look and hurried me to the washroom. "Let's get you cleaned up, okay, dear?" she said as she turned on the faucet. She leaned me over the sink and rinsed my hair. The rust-colored water swirled down the drain. When we were done, my teacher gently brushed my hair. I had never been treated with such kindness and concern. Then and there I decided that someday I would become a teacher like her.
Now I had a chance to do for Ryan what that teacher had done for me. But I dreaded the truth. Lord, don't let Ryan be going through the same horrors, I begged.
The first thing I did was consult one of Ryan's former teachers. "Well;' she told me, "his parents were turned in twice for suspicion of child abuse. The authorities couldn't prove his injuries were inflicted intentionally, but no child his age would leave his hand on a hot stove long enough to get burns as severe as the ones I saw:'
I set up a conference with Ryan's mother, a gruff, stay-out-of-my-face type of person. She didn't seem the least bit concerned about her son's lack of involvement in school. She did tell me the family had been investigated, ''but we don't punish him like that anymore." With no definite physical proof that Ryan was being abused, however, I had little basis to report my suspicions. Yet something was wrong. The signs were there, signs I knew too well.
I tried all sorts of ways to get Ryan to participate in class. I sat next to him, and I left him alone. I gave him choices, or I told him exactly what I wanted. I coaxed him with chocolates or the promise of extra time at recess. I even sharpened his pencils for him, hoping he'd notice my concern. I had always prided myself on being able to reach even the most recalcitrant pupil, but Ryan's only response was not to respond. “I'm running out of ideas, Lord,” I prayed. “What more can I do? You've got to show me how to reach this boy.”
It was around that time my son, Peter, came home from college for a visit. He's a bit of a hero in our town, for winning a couple of state athletic events and because he's had a few small parts in movies. I often have him talk to my class. That year, as he told them about life on the set, I saw Ryan was looking at him and actually seemed to be listening. An idea jumped into my head: Why not invite Ryan to spend the night at our house? Peter wouldn't be around, but he could see Peter's trophies and scrapbooks. And he'd also get to experience what normal family life is like.
I tried to push the thought out of my head. After all, in this day of lawsuits, a teacher has to be careful. I doubted I'd be able to get his parents' consent. But something kept urging me on, whispering that it was the right thing to do. One morning Ryan walked into class early, and the words just flew out of my mouth: “Ryan, how would you like to come to my house? You could see Peter's trophies and pictures, and then you could sleep over.”
“I'd like that a lot;” he said softly. Then he looked down at his shoes. “But my mom won't let me.”
“I'll ask her if it would be okay.” I told him.
I called his mother that night. She said no. The next day, I sent a note home with Ryan, explaining more fully why I wanted him to visit. When there was no response to that, I mailed a letter to his house. She ignored the letter, so I called her again, and was refused once more. But I wasn't about to give up. When I ran into his mother at the grocery store, I cornered her. "Please, would you let Ryan come over? It would mean so much to him. It would make him feel so special. I pressed on and, perhaps just to get rid of me, she abruptly said, "I s'pose he can.” I couldn't wait to tell Ryan the news.
A couple of days later Ryan came to my house with me after school. “Make yourself at home.” I told him. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge.”
Clutching a plastic shopping bag stuffed with his overnight things, Ryan walked through the house, looking at pictures and books and furniture. He was mesmerized by the framed collection of Peter's medals. Then he walked over to the piano to peer at a picture of Jesus.
“Your house is so clean.” he said at last, staring, as usual, at his feet. If only he would smile!
“I started cleaning just as soon as I knew you were coming.” I told him. He looked up, his eyes wide, and there was the faintest flicker of life. Has anyone ever done something just for him?
That night we walked the dog together and picked flowers to set on the table. We ate pizza for dinner. Later he played a game with my husband and looked through all of Peter's scrapbooks. Ryan was his quiet, withdrawn self, yet I sensed he felt a certain peace with us.
“Could I sleep in Peter's room?” he asked when I told him it was bedtime.
“Sure, Ryan. Let's get you settled in.”
As he emptied his shopping-bag luggage, I saw that all he had packed was a pair of pajamas, still wrapped in the store package. My heart went weak. I started thinking how fruitless it was for me to try to undo all that was wrong with his home life. Why did I get so involved? I wondered. Then I remembered my teacher from long ago gently brushing my hair, how such a simple act of kindness had changed my life. “Dear Lord, help me reach Ryan.”
“Ryan,” I said, “my childhood was full of tough times too. But things didn't stay that way. My life got better. God was looking out for me, and he's looking out for you too.” Then I said a prayer with him, snapped off the light and left to go to bed.
The next morning on the way to school I wondered what Ryan was thinking. Had bringing him to my home done any good?
While I was getting my lessons ready, the other students filed into the classroom. They gathered around Ryan, peppering him with questions: “What was teacher's house like?” “What did you do?” “What kind of food does teacher eat?” “Does she ever go to the bathroom?” “Does she sleep in a bed?”
I kept silent, wondering what Ryan would do with his moment in the limelight. He started talking, haltingly at first, then gesturing with his hands like a born storyteller as he explained how the dog had acted during our walk and about having pizza for dinner. He talked about Peter's trophies and medals, and said he'd gotten to sleep in Peter's room. Then I saw it, crossing Ryan's face like the first light of morning. His eyes were aglow; the light inside him had finally reignited. Ryan was smiling, smiling as if he would never stop.
“Thank you, Lord”, I prayed. It might have been a crazy idea, but maybe it worked. After that, Ryan began paying attention in class.
He moved his desk closer to mine so I could give him help if he needed it. He worked extra hard on his reading. By year's end he was performing at or above his grade level in every subject.
It had all begun with God reminding me of a child I once knew, a little girl with a blank stare, whose life had been transformed through the simple love of a teacher's touch. That had made all the difference in the world – to Ryan and to me.