32: Bring Me Back a Rock

32: Bring Me Back a Rock

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Bring Me Back a Rock

Man is harder than rock and more fragile than an egg.

~Yugoslav Proverb

Seven years have gone by now, yet in my mind’s eye I can still vividly recall every detail as if it happened yesterday. Your small round face, never quite clean enough, stringy blond bangs hanging over sad brown eyes. Clothes always wrinkled and too small on your bony shoulders, and sockless feet inside worn-out sneakers with no shoelaces. You maintained an almost invisible identity, always fearful of others who whispered as you walked by and nicknamed you “rag muffin.”

Having a daughter your exact age made my heart ache for you even more. What if I couldn’t afford the things for my little girl that your parents couldn’t provide for you and your five brothers and sisters? I wanted to do something to help but I didn’t know how or what I could do. Besides, I was just your teacher. And then from out of nowhere it hit me—that’s what I can do. Along with teaching you reading and math and spelling, I’ll teach you some everyday skills that might improve the quality of your life and other people’s perception of you.

First I had to reverse your self-induced disappearing act and make you visible again. Others needed to see the real you, a seven-year-old boy who didn’t always behave himself but who always said he was sorry when he didn’t. I brought to school a grooming bag complete with soap, towel, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste and discretely sent you to the boys’ room every morning to get cleaned up. I appealed to my friends who had little boys to give me their hand-me-down clothes and shoes. Sneaking crackers into your backpack for snack time and secretly paying for you to have “doubles” in the school cafeteria became everyday rituals.

Our classroom became your home away from home, your safe haven, a place where you could escape and be a child, at least for a little while. Then at 3:00 PM the dismissal bell would ring. And like the midnight gong that interrupted Cinderella’s dance at the ball, I gave you a goodbye hug and smile and sent you back to your world. The world where, hopefully unlike what happened to Cinderella, I prayed you wouldn’t change back into a ragamuffin.

I worried about you all the time, even on the weekends. I remember one cool, crisp North Carolina Saturday morning, right before the weather turned cold; my daughter and I went out shopping for her new winter coat. This was an annual battle we had engaged in since she was four years old. For me the perfect winter coat had to be long and wool and thick enough to shield her from the winds that got bitter cold from the months of December to March. An attached hood would also be nice, since leaving home wearing a cap didn’t necessarily mean she’d come home with it.

In her eyes, the perfect winter coat had only requirement. It had to be pink. After many hours and hundreds of try-ons we finally found a coat we could both agree on. It was long, thick, hooded, and yes, it was pink.

Filled with a sense of accomplishment, all I wanted to do was pay for the coat and hurry home to curl up on the couch with a good girly movie or book. Instead, for reasons beyond my understanding, I grabbed the pink coat in one hand and my daughter’s hand in the other and said, “Now we have to go to the boys department and buy a coat for Johnnie.”

That’s what life was like for us during the two years I was your teacher. But it was worth it. Things were definitely looking up for you. You gained weight, you smiled more and you even began to risk raising your hand in class to answer questions. You trusted me enough to know I would always lead you to the correct answer. But your trust in others was still a little shaky and it was time to fix that, especially since you would be promoted to the next grade and you weren’t going to be my student next year.

I began to plan partner projects and group activities that required you to communicate with your classmates and work as a team. At first, you refused to work with anyone else but me and you even got mad at me when I insisted you work with someone else. But with a lot of time and a lot of coaxing you eventually started to relax and have trust in your peers.

That is until one cool breezy fall day in November, the last school day before the Thanksgiving holiday. The classroom buzzed with the electricity of children hardly able to contain their excitement. All they could think about were the intriguing adventures awaiting them over the holiday. By afternoon, with only one more hour of school, no one was in the mood for learning. So I ditched the video of The First Thanksgiving, which they had seen every November since kindergarten, and instead decided to have a sharing time where everyone got a chance to tell about their plans for the upcoming holiday.

You sat in your usual place, right next to me, and listened while your peers told about cruises to the Bahamas, trips to Disneyland and visits to Grandma in New York and other faraway places. With no one else left to share, I turned to you and asked, “Johnnie, would you like to tell us what you’re doing over the Thanksgiving holiday?”

“Yes,” you said proudly. “I’m going to Kernersville to visit my aunt.” The words were barely out of your mouth when the class erupted with laughter. Everyone knew Kernersville, about twenty minutes outside of Winston-Salem, was nowhere special to go. You froze in embarrassment and began to retreat back inside yourself.

I rushed to your rescue, “REALLY!” I yelled out over the laughter. “Would you bring me back a-a-a rock,” I stuttered. “I could really use a nice rock.” The room became perfectly still with an uncomfortable silence as you silently nodded, “Yes, Mrs. Reynolds.”

Thanksgiving break, like all vacations, ended much too soon. Children returned to school with stories, pictures and items to share, each child trying to outdo the other with tall tales and embellished stories. This time I knew better than to put the spotlight on you and ask you to share, but without warning you stood up and began to slowly walk to the front of the room. The shock and fear I felt for you made me hold my breath so hard, I believe my heart actually skipped a beat. For a moment you just stood there looking down at your feet and then without saying a word, you reached into your coat pocket and pulled out a rock. A rock washed and polished until it shined like a new penny, a rock just small enough for two tiny trembling hands to hold. A rock that neither you nor I could possibly know would change our hearts forever.

The entire class silently awaited my reaction. They were obviously confused and taking their cues from me on how to react. “WOW!” I said, reaching out with the kind of hands used to hold a newborn infant or something priceless and delicate. “It’s absolutely perfect. This is exactly the kind of rock I was hoping for. Please tell us all about it.”

Hesitantly, you began to tell about the rock—where you found it—why you chose it. With every word, your voice grew stronger and your stance grew taller. At long last, all eyes and ears belonged to you. At the conclusion of your share, classmates applauded with enthusiasm and someone yelled out, “Johnnie, YOU ROCK.” I watched you like a proud mother bird watches her baby bird take flight for the very first time. I knew it was time to let you go.

Finally, you had found your wings and it was time for you to soar.

Needless to say I received many rocks that year. So many that we began a classroom rock collection. Some rocks came from volcanic mountains and underground canyons. Other rocks came from local restaurants or a relative’s backyard. Every rock had a story and earned another pushpin on the map. By the end of the school year the class had collected nearly fifty rocks and had learned more about the world and themselves than any number of books could have ever taught them. Students from other classrooms came to know us as the rock experts and you, Johnnie, you were the rock master.

As fate would have it, your family moved away that summer and left no forwarding address. So I never got to see you again or say goodbye. But the rock tradition continues. Every year I tell the story of “bring me back a rock” to my new class of students. I tell them that all rocks from previous class collections are boxed up and put away except for the rock inside this clear plastic cube. This rock has a permanent place on my desk and in my heart. As I hold up the rock I explain that it may look ordinary and insignificant but it’s by far the most precious rock of them all. This rock represents love, courage and acceptance of others. It is the very rock that started it all and it was given to me by someone who will always be near and dear to my heart.

Thanks Johnnie, and wherever you are, “bring me back a rock.”

~Adrienne C. Reynolds

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