I’m Somebody!

I’m Somebody!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

I’m Somebody!

In order to succeed we must first believe that we can.

Michael Korda

Tommy was quick-tempered and passionate, yet there was something special about him that touched my heart. He had the sharpest sense of humor I’ve ever seen in an eight-year-old child. He was my daughter Jenny’s best friend in second grade.

“This is my friend, Tommy,” Jenny said, as she pulled him toward me for the introduction. He kicked an imaginary clod of dirt, and his eyes would not meet mine.

“Well, well, Tommy,” I smiled. “That big clod of dirt you just kicked sure is attracting your attention, isn’t it?” I teased. Suddenly, his twinkling dark eyes met mine, and he kicked the floor again.

“Take that, you old clod!” he cried, his face breaking into an irresistible grin.

I kicked the floor and cried, “Yeah! You old clod!” Tommy and Jenny cracked up just as the teacher walked up to introduce herself. She smiled at me, then gave Tommy a cold look.

“No nonsense today, young man,” the teacher scolded. Tommy’s face fell and his shoulders drooped as he walked away. Placing his hands in his pockets, he turned and met my eyes. I’ll never forget that look. It was a look of total hopelessness.

The woman thanked me kindly when I offered to become “room mother” to her class. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I baked cookies, taught crafts, went on every field trip, and I became attached to Tommy. If ever there was a prophecy of failure, it was Tommy. He was a marked child from the day he took his first step into kindergarten. I couldn’t understand it. How can a life be marked for failure in second grade? I found him to be bright and endearing, but my heart was completely won over when I saw the pattern of failure written on his life.

I remembered painfully what it felt like to be eight years old and to have my father turn on me one day, with his face twisting, and scream in my face, “You will never amount to anything!” I could feel shock waves of ice water streaking through my veins.

I saw a similar pattern in Tommy’s life, and I swore I would do everything in my power to make certain that the disaster that had infected my early life wouldn’t happen to him. I became his champion. I helped him with his lessons every day. I laughed and I dreamed with him.

“Oh, I’ll be nothing,” he would say. “My dad’s nothing. My granddad’s nothing. I’ll be nothing, too. I’d like to keep that in the family.” Then he’d laugh. I chuckled, but I didn’t think it was funny. It was all too real.

The first field trip I chaperoned was very illuminating. Before we left the school, and once on the bus, the teacher warned Tommy, “No pranks, now. The first time that you step out of line, the field trip will be over for you!”

I heard Tommy mumble, “Well, there goes my trip to the planetarium! I’m doomed.”

“No, Tommy, you’re not doomed,” I whispered. “You’ll see the planetarium! I’ll be right there with you!” He turned away and stared at the fields racing by. When we stopped for lunch, Tommy received his third warning. I tried to lighten the mood by saying, “That’s okay, I’ll stay with Tommy.” I laughed nervously as Tommy looked away stone-faced. He ate in silence, sitting next to one of the other second grade boys.

Then I saw it. I was right across the table. The boy next to Tommy wiped ketchup on Tommy’s brand-new shirt. Lightning flashed in Tommy’s eyes as he shoved the boy off the bench and onto the grass.

“Tommy!” the teacher cried. “I warned you, young man! You are banned from the planetarium! You will wait in the lobby until everyone else goes through!” A secret smile slipped across the perpetrator’s face.

“Wait. Wait!” I cried. “It wasn’t Tommy’s fault. This other boy wiped ketchup on his shirt. Tommy shouldn’t be punished! This other boy is at fault. Tommy needs to see the planetarium!” I needed for Tommy to see the planetarium.

Hard blue eyes looked at Tommy. “No!” she said. “Tommy knows better. There will be no fighting! He must learn!” I felt just awful. What could I do?

As we loaded onto the bus and continued our journey, I sought the woman out. I begged and pleaded. Please. Please! Please! Any kind of punishment but failure. Nothing worked. Her mind was made up. She explained how Tommy’s “bad record” went back to kindergarten! He was a bad seed. He’d never do anything. Or be anything. My blood ran cold, remembering my father’s prophecy.

I had no idea how to remedy this situation. I volunteered to stay in the lobby of the planetarium. The teacher urged me to join the children, and she would stay with Tommy. No, I assured her. I wanted to stay with Tommy, and after all, the other children would have so many questions for her to answer. I didn’t tell her, but I needed to stay with Tommy.

Tommy and I sat on a bench in the lobby for a long time, not speaking. Then, he began to talk. “I don’t remember ever doing anything right in my whole life, Miss Jaye.”

I put my arm around him, and I said, “I know how that feels.” Tommy looked up at me with adoring eyes. Except for my children, this was a new experience for me. “Tommy, I was just like you, honey. Just like you. I never succeeded at anything. But my life is different now.” I paused, looking into his eyes, with deep conviction.

“What changed, Miss Jaye?” he asked.

“Well, Tommy,” I began, “it’s pretty simple, really.” He gave me a look that told me he was hanging on to every word. “I couldn’t change the people around me. Not my teachers. Not my classmates. Not my parents. Not anyone else. So, I changed me.”

Tommy’s eyes looked puzzled, and then the dawn of understanding burst forth! I’ve never seen such sudden awareness in the eyes of anyone so young. We continued to talk, and I told Tommy all about that day when I became nothing, and I told him what a lie it was. I told him that I knew I was somebody, because a wonderful God says that I am wonderfully made. I told him that many adults say terrible things that come from their own fear of failure. I told him that this day could be the turning point in his life. I told him that he was a wonderful, somebody special with the power to change his own life. Oh, I told Tommy a lot that day, perhaps more than I had ever told anyone and Tommy believed me. Every word.

The next day I went to the school counseling office and spoke to the social worker assigned to the school. He turned out to have a powerful influence on Tommy’s future. Tommy was removed from his second grade class and put into a special education class. The second grade teacher told me, “I’m not surprised. He just couldn’t last in a normal class.” It sickened me, yet I was elated at Tommy’s new possibilities.

I heard a few whispers that Tommy was “remarkably, making A’s,” that he was accepted into the gifted and talented program, and “what was our educational system coming to?” I’d smile and say I hadn’t a clue. I saw Tommy only once after this.

When Jenny was in the middle of third grade, I left my abusive husband and fled with my children to a women’s shelter. What had I done with my life? Perhaps my dad was right. Was I nothing? I felt trepidation about the future, yet I knew I would fight any dragon just to keep my children safe.

Months later we were safe. I returned to the elementary school for copies of my children’s transcripts and as I walked down the hallway I heard footsteps behind me. Before I could turn around, a pair of small arms encircled me, squeezing me tight. I heard Tommy’s voice cry out, “Miss Jaye! Miss Jaye!” As I turned, he threw himself into my arms. He had grown so tall! His eyes were shining, and he was laughing. He once again met my eyes with the same adoring look! “Miss Jaye!” he cried. “You were right! I can change myself! And I did! I’m happy now. I’m somebody!

Tears sprang to my eyes and fell upon Tommy’s brown hair. I brushed them off as I squatted to study his face. “Yes, Tommy, you are somebody! You have always been somebody!” I hugged him to me, and my eyes locked with the man in the office behind him. That same wonderful counselor, overqualified and underpaid, smiled at me, and gave me two thumbs up!

“Gotta go, Miss Jaye! See you soon!” Tommy gave me one last hug and turned to go. He stopped midstride and looked back at me. “I love you, Miss Jaye!”

“I love you, too, Tommy!” I choked, my eyes blind with tears. Then he turned and ran out of my life. Twenty-five years later, I am still amazed at the impact that young boy had upon me, and how he changed my view of myself.

As I walked out of the school, carrying my children’s records, I stepped into the bright sunshine of a new life. In spite of my personal struggles ahead, I felt hope for the future. Every day since, I have felt Tommy’s words echo within my own heart.

“I’m somebody! I’m somebody!

Jaye Lewis

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