36: The Sponge

36: The Sponge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Sponge

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.

~Lord Byron

I taught children for thirty years and retired last year. At one point in my career, I worked in a juvenile prison for teenage girls. Many of these young women had endured physical, sexual and emotional abuse, draining them of self-worth and robbing them of innocence. Many had turned to alcohol and drugs to soothe the pain. Others acted out in violent and inappropriate ways.

Earning their trust was not an easy chore.

One particularly difficult girl, Ashley, had to be removed from the classroom numerous times due to belligerence. When the class was asked to write autobiographies, she wrote three words and signed her name. This was while the other girls were writing long, detailed descriptions of their lives.

“My life stinks,” wrote Ashley.

When we had meetings with her to discuss her progress, or lack thereof, she sat there like a statue, lifeless and silent.

One day, I found her drawing on the desk. Ordinarily, this would have resulted in a reprimand and a “consequence” for violating the rules. But to this point, no type of discipline had seemed to faze her; she had already endured numerous room restrictions, and loss of movie and commissary privileges. They did nothing to alter her behavior. More punishment would be futile.

I ignored the violation. I looked at the drawing she created and was impressed. It was a sketch of a mother swinging her young daughter in the park. It was done with great clarity and detail, and I stood there a long time studying it.

“That’s very good,” I said. “You’re talented and should redraw this on a piece of paper.” I left it at that and returned to my seat.

After the weekend, I returned to work. Ashley was absent. I was told she received a disciplinary ticket on Saturday for cursing at staff and intimidating other youth, and she wouldn’t return until Thursday.

I asked Hope, a friend and classmate, for some insight into what Ashley enjoyed reading. She informed me that Ashley enjoyed reading Harry Potter books, and also loved the music of the sixties and stories about The Beatles. After lunch, I found Harry Potter books and stories about The Beatles in the library.

I returned to my office and gathered math and English texts, crossword puzzles and word searches, and a sketchpad and pencils I had purchased over the weekend.

I wasn’t allowed to visit Ashley, so I wrote a note expressing my hope that she was feeling better. The security officer assured me she would receive it.

Ashley returned to the classroom Thursday morning. I asked if she had completed any assignments I had given her. She shook her head no. I reached for the sketchpad, but she grabbed it and pulled it to her.

“That’s okay,” I said. “It belongs to you.”

I smiled, returned to the front of the room, and began teaching the lesson. Several times during the period, I felt her staring at me.

When the bell rang, the class exited — except for Ashley, who stood in front of my desk.

“Thanks for getting me stuff when I was in confinement, especially the sketchpad and pencils. They helped me get through some tough days,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I responded.

She turned to leave, but I stopped her.

“Wait a second, Ashley. I’m leaving on vacation, and there are some books I want to lend you.”

I placed a box of books on my desk.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“These are some poetry books and novels I thought you might enjoy.”

I pulled one of my favorites from the box. It was a book by Shel Silverstein called A Light in the Attic. I held up the book for her to see.

“Sometimes, when I’m feeling low and the world seems to crowd me, I thumb through the pages and laugh,” I said. “I always feel better afterwards.”

I returned to work after vacation, and the only recognizable face in class was Ashley. She’d been denied parole and ordered to spend three more months at the facility.

I walked to her desk, and said, “Didn’t go well at the parole board, huh?”

She looked at me and shook her head.

“Hang in there,” I said. “Look for the rainbow beyond the clouds. This is your life right now, but it doesn’t have to be forever.” I left a peppermint twist on her desk.

I often had students work for me when class was not in session. One day, I called Ashley, and she accepted. She swept and mopped the room and graded papers. I offered her a Pepsi and homemade oatmeal cookies I had baked the previous evening.

She sat at the desk and began talking.

“I haven’t been a good person. I have hurt myself, my family, and my friends,” she said.

She talked for ten minutes without stopping, and then looked at me.

“They will forgive you,” I said. “They love you. You’re not to blame; you’re a victim. And the power to change lies within you.”

It was a mild summer day, and I suggested a walk around the grounds. She agreed. When I returned her to the dormitory fifteen minutes later, she broke into a wide smile and said, “Thank you.”

Ashley turned her life around. She completed daily assignments, raised her grades and made the honor roll. She was pleasant and engaging, and worked diligently to become a better person. She volunteered to tutor struggling students, and earned a job working in the administration building delivering mail.

The day her parole was granted, she stopped by my classroom. She was excited about reuniting with her family and friends, and moving on with life. We talked, and she showed me drawings and poems she had created.

I looked at them and said, “I’m very proud of you.”

She blushed and turned away. I handed her a tissue. After a deep hug, she departed, and I leaned back in my chair and inhaled.

I noticed a manila envelope on my desk and opened it. She had left several poems and drawings, and a photo of herself.

On the back of the picture, she’d written, “Thank you, Mr. E., for believing in me.”

The human spirit is a sponge. It absorbs what it is given.

~Jerome Elmore

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