Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural, is quoted as saying, “We have two lives... the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
There are events one experiences that serve as significant learning opportunities. These events stay with us and are destined to change the life we live.
After being in the classroom for many years, I have many such stories and one in particular comes to mind.
That is the story of Antonio.
One morning I was standing in the front of the classroom, preparing my lesson and surrounded by three middle school students. In came Antonio... if you have been in a classroom, you know other students who are just like him. He’s the one who melts into the woodwork, who quietly sits, and you wonder if anything is being absorbed.
Antonio was the kind of student other students tended to shun because of his ragged hair and his oversized second-hand clothing. He was the kind of student who bounced between too many schools and districts to count.
That morning he was wearing a long black coat with deep pockets. I said good morning to him, and he reached into his pocket.
Without a word, he pulled out a statue of a dog, broken and chipped, and plunked it on my overhead.
“Oh, a dog! Did you bring this to share, Antonio?” He nodded his head. Then as I looked closer I saw that both the dog’s legs were broken off and missing.
“Oh, Antonio, that’s too bad. His legs are broken off and missing.”
Without a word, Antonio dug in his pocket and produced the broken legs. I told Antonio I would put the dog on my shelf so others could see it. I told him we could glue the legs back on and paint the dog, so it would look like new. He nodded and with a smile left the room.
That afternoon, me and other teachers met in our team with the guidance counselor; of course, the topic of Antonio came up. I told about the dog and how unusual it was for a sixth-grader to bring something to share, especially something broken.
The guidance counselor went to the home later that day to discuss concerns about Antonio’s school progress. She eventually brought up the topic of the dog at which point the mother became very angry.
The mom’s comments included: “It’s too bad that gift my son brought for that teacher wasn’t good enough for her. We don’t have much money, and he searched all over this house to find something to give her. He really admires her. Too bad it wasn’t good enough for her!”
After hearing the story, I went to Antonio and asked if he had meant it for a gift, and he said yes. I thanked him warmly and kept the dog on my shelf.
Shortly after the dog came to school, Antonio was gone, moved in the middle of the night as bills came due. For many years in my classroom I kept the dog on my shelf for all to see, chipped and broken, as a symbol of the chipped and broken children that passed through our classrooms.
We cannot repair them, but we can give them a place of honor within the walls of our rooms. The life we learn with and the life we live after that ... It is truly a life lesson when it remains part of your thinking throughout the years.
Maybe this particular life lesson learned many years ago is a lesson of which we all need to be reminded. We are all surrounded by chipped and broken people in our community.
Maybe that chipped and broken statue can challenge us to provide those around us with an environment of warmth and caring where being chipped and broken might not be quite so bad.
— Jane Schmidt, PhD, of Delmar, is a teacher and education adminstrator who was named the 2014 Iowa Teacher of the Year.