96: The Smallest Sign

96: The Smallest Sign

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Smallest Sign

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.

~George Iles

I had been teaching for sixteen years, and as anyone can tell you, sixteen years of doing anything, even something you love, can wear you down. I had seen many students come and go in the elementary classrooms where I had taught, and though my passion for teaching hadn’t waned, I often wondered if I was doing any good as a teacher. Was I really inspiring them to pursue and achieve their dreams?

That’s a difficult question for any teacher to answer. I teach at an inner-city school where the students come with many challenges in their lives: economic, social, and emotional. But they are still children, and when I see them at the beginning of each year, the hope in their faces and that which I feel in my heart make me think that maybe there’s something I can do to help them to see the possibilities in their future.

During my first year of teaching, I was filled with that hope, and I took time to learn what every student was interested in, what their favorite subjects were, and what they dreamed of becoming when they grew up. I was determined to inspire each and every one of them, and ignite a desire within each of them to know, question, and understand.

For most of my students, that seemed to be the case. Many were enthusiastic coming in, and that enthusiasm just grew as the year went by. By finding out what they loved and connecting it to our lessons, I got them interested in all the wonders the world had to offer. I felt I was teaching not just to their minds, but to their hearts.

But there was one little girl in my class who didn’t respond the way the others did. She was a quiet, shy child named Ashley who sat at her desk and did her work, finished all her homework, and was well behaved. However, she didn’t seem interested in being engaged in the class conversations. She was helpful and kind to everyone, but there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm in her eyes.

Getting Ashley to find that love of learning became my goal for that year. I wanted to figure out what she was interested in, what sparked her desire to learn, what would light up her face with the joy of discovery. She liked to read and write, so I encouraged her, reading her stories and essays and letting her know how much I liked them. I showed her books in the library I thought she might enjoy. Ashley liked to draw, so I asked her to draw pictures for any assignment she felt needed them. She drew dozens of wonderful pictures, but nothing seemed to bring a smile to her face.

In fact, as the year progressed, Ashley withdrew more and more. She completed every project, but there didn’t seem any joy in the doing of it. She remained kind, but her friendships with others grew more distant. There didn’t seem to be the smallest sign she enjoyed school at all. By the time the end of the year came around, I felt I’d failed this little girl.

On the last day of school, the students and I were having our going-away class party, and everyone seemed happy that summer was just around the corner. Many of the students told me they’d had a great year in third grade, and some were even sorry that school was finally over. I should have felt happy.

But I didn’t. Ashley seemed ready to begin summer also, but there was no happiness on her part. She sat quietly at her desk, grinned a little when someone laughed and smiled at her, and silently packed up her supplies when the three o’clock bell rang. She didn’t even look at me as the children began to leave the room.

I was on my way out the door when I spied a book I’d bought earlier that week. It was a children’s book about a little girl who went on all kinds of wonderful adventures. I hadn’t known then why I’d bought it, but now, staring at it in my hands, I knew. I opened the first page, grabbed a pen, and wrote an inscription to Ashley. I told her I hoped she had a wonderful summer, and that I knew she’d have all kinds of great adventures in her life, too. Then I put the book in her hands, and the wave of students exiting classes pulled us all to the front of the school. Book in hand, Ashley disappeared onto a bus and was gone.

Sixteen years later, I was sitting in another classroom, ready to start another year, hoping I could still find a way to inspire the new class of children I was about to meet. I was checking my e-mail and came across one that said the following:

Hi Mr. Buentello,

You were my third grade teacher. I’m all grown now, but I’ll never forget when you gave me a book on the last day of school. You wrote a note on the inside. While it probably was a small gesture to you, it really meant a lot to me. At the time my life was very unstable. Reading has always been an inspiration for me. The gift you gave me was the first book I ever owned, and I will never forget the moment you gave it to me. I just wanted you to know how thankful I am.


I sat there reading and re-reading that e-mail. Then the morning bell rang. I rose up out of my chair, felt a fresh wave of hope wash over me, and went to greet my new class.

~John P. Buentello

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