4: Saving Daniel

4: Saving Daniel

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Saving Daniel

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.

~Helen Keller

First graders literally hung from the light fixtures as I stepped into the room on that first day. A row of angry mothers lined the back wall with frowns on their faces and belts in their hands. The aide ran a carpet sweeper over spilled cereal while chaos erupted all around her in this inner-city classroom.

It was the thirteenth day of school, and the class had already gone through fifteen teachers. I was lucky sixteen, and this was my first day of teaching — ever.

Over the previous weeks, the classroom had been stripped bare save for a tub of broken crayons, a ream of newsprint, and a handful of chewed-up pencils. No books, no supplies and, I was told, no budget to buy any.

A third of my students spoke only Spanish; I only spoke English. My aide knew ten basic Spanish commands, and that was it.

But I was young, energetic and determined. So, we began.

I started by using my salary to buy supplies for the classroom. I could live on beans; my kids needed pencils. I got donations of used books from libraries, bought crackers and cheese spread for hungry tummies, and searched Goodwill for sweaters and jackets for the students who came to school on cold days in flip-flops and shorts.

Many of my English-speaking students had never been past their own block. Some had not stepped out their front doors before they entered school, and had never interacted with other kids. Many of my Spanish speakers were new arrivals to this country. It was like English was a second language for everyone.

So, I went to the universal language — music. We sang.

We sang our good-morning song. We sang our days of the week, our numbers and our colors. We sang about the seasons and our body parts and how to move. We sang about how to line up and how to sit down. And we danced. We danced our way to lunch, to our seats, to our stations. We danced the water cycle and our addition facts. We jumped, we skipped, we twisted and froze, and then we bowed and sat.

And we laughed.

Don’t get me wrong… there were many days I cried. The job felt impossible. I barely slept, hardly ate, and never had enough time. The students entered first grade at least three years behind the kids at most other schools, and while some parents were very supportive, others were downright hostile. I’d go home drained, exhausted, and ready to give up.

Except, there was Daniel. I couldn’t give up on Daniel. None of us could.

A full head shorter than all the other students, Daniel’s yellow hue showed through his dark skin. The whites of his eyes were the color of egg yolks, and his trembling body was clearly ill and stressed.

And yet, despite his limited English, the child would shine like the sun whenever we’d sing and dance. He’d kick and twist and clap until he had to find the beanbag chair to sit and catch his breath. Even there, panting for breath, his smile would beam while his eyes followed his classmates as they marched and galloped and twirled.

Unfortunately, each day Daniel danced for shorter and shorter periods and then fell asleep for hours. His mom came to me with an interpreter. He had kidney failure. He was on the list for a transplant, but no one knew if he would get it in time. He might not be able to do schoolwork — but he loved the music. They lived right across the street from school. She wanted to know if she could bring him whenever we were singing, and then take him home after. He was dying, and his mother believed that the music was giving him a reason to go on.

With Administration’s approval, we made a plan: Whenever Daniel was awake and strong enough to come to school, his mom would bring him. I’d arrange our classroom schedule so that we’d do music when Daniel came into the room, and since we sang ten times a day, adding in a few songs on whatever topics we were working on would be easy.

And it changed everything.

Students who believed they had nothing and offered nothing were suddenly empowered — to save Daniel.

They might have been fidgety or naughty before he showed up, but as soon as Daniel entered the room, everyone was single-minded in purpose. They sat up straight, included Daniel in the circle, and listened. They performed their hearts out until they could elicit a smile from the fragile boy. Each day when they were done, they’d walk Daniel to the beanbag chair, cover him with a blanket, and let him sleep until his mom came to pick him up.

We became a family — a loving, caring family. We had a common cause — to save Daniel — and to do so, we sang our hearts out.

Each week, I brought new songs as we learned new subjects. Each week, our motley band bonded more and more in our common cause. Nevertheless, Daniel’s strength waned.

Soon, he could not dance with us. He could no longer walk into the room. He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t sit up. Finally, his mother had to carry him in and lay him on the beanbag chair. She’d prop up his head and cover him, but he had stopped opening his eyes. When she lay him down, we’d quietly get up and begin a song. Softly, slowly, we’d start, then let the volume build as we began to dance and keep the rhythm. The students seemed to pour their wills and determination into giving their all for Daniel. And when they did, sometimes Daniel’s lips would make the smallest smile, and we would all break into cheers.

Then Daniel didn’t come.

I went over to Daniel’s house at recess, but no one was home. That night, I cried myself to sleep.

But there was no need to mourn. Daniel was gone because he was to get a kidney.

We’d done our job and helped him stay alive until that could happen.

Last I heard, Daniel had graduated from high school. He’d gone on to live the life of a normal child and teen. He was into video games — and loved music.

I’ve moved away from that school and teaching, but the lessons of that year changed who I am. I understand the power of song, hope, and giving. I understand the determination of the human heart. I know that the least of us can be empowered to change the world, and that Daniel did as much to save us as we did to save Daniel.

~Susan Traugh

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