10: Our Tiny Dancer

10: Our Tiny Dancer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Our Tiny Dancer

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I didn’t meet Tammy until the last four weeks of my final student-teaching semester. I looked up from my reading group one morning and saw a porcelain doll of a child standing in the doorway. Except for her hairless head, she looked like the ballerina that adorned my childhood music box. In seconds, this fragile girl was surrounded by a gaggle of second graders competing for her hugs. Then, the sea of children parted, and this tiny dancer in her pink tutu and sparkly purple headband struggled to move toward her desk.

The children often spoke of Tammy, the gifted girl who had been out of school for several months. They missed her and couldn’t wait for her return. My master teacher, Mrs. C., told me that Tammy had recently survived her second operation in New York to halt the spread of a cancerous brain tumor. It was a rare condition, one that required the aid of the best neurosurgeon in the country — the same doctor who had been the subject of a Nova special on PBS the previous year.

The children prepared me for Tammy’s arrival by showing me her picture and telling me that she was the smartest and sweetest girl in the second grade. They said that I should treat her as I would any of the other healthy children.

Little did I know that one fiercely brave little girl would teach me far more than I could ever teach her. With each step, Tammy fought for balance, but no one rushed to her side. We must have stood in silence for five minutes as Tammy walked five feet to her seat. A roar of approval burst out of thirty second-grade students as soon as Tammy sat down. With a toothless smile as big and bright as the Manhattan skyline, she looked around the room as if to say, “I’m home.”

After Tammy’s first day back, the lessons continued as usual, but I had a new star to brighten my days. It was Tammy who raised her hand for every question; it was Tammy who volunteered for every leadership role; it was Tammy who took all of our hearts and held them hostage under her spell. She taught us so many things that spring: the patience to wait for her labored answers; the intelligence to decode her garbled speech; and, the pride we felt every time she struggled to be normal. But it was one kickball game that changed me forever.

I directed all of the children in Mrs. C’s class to their positions on the field one afternoon after quickly teaching them the rules of the game. When the bases were loaded, and the students had proven their adequate knowledge of kickball, it was Tammy’s turn. I held my breath. Like a wounded gazelle, she held her head high and limped to the ball. With the effort and concentration of an Olympic athlete, Tammy kicked her better leg out from under her. The ball barely rolled. Simultaneously, the whole field of players moved in slow motion as if they were one highly trained troupe of ballerinas. Within minutes, I became a silent spectator to the most beautiful dance I had ever seen.

The pitcher slowly undulated toward the ball as Tammy loped to first base. In a graceful, methodical arc, he threw the ball to first. Even the ball moved in slow motion. Tammy limped to second base as the first baseman took an eternity to wind up her throw. When Tammy struggled to reach third base, the outfielder held the ball in an arabesque pose on tiptoes, releasing it only after Tammy tagged in. I don’t know how long I had been holding my breath by the time Tammy tripped into home base, but when the catcher caught her just before she fell, I was choking on my tears.

I have never seen anything more perfectly choreographed in kindness than that kickball game.

Tammy did not live long after that school year, but she faced cancer with extraordinary wisdom and a superhuman will to survive. Even now, after thirty-six years of teaching in the California public schools where many, many lives have honored my work and touched my heart, not many days pass between the times I think about our tiny dancer in Mrs. C’s second grade class.

~Jeaninne Escallier Kato

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