Each weekday morning, I watch as the 1,411 students pour off the yellow school buses and down the bustling middle school hallways. They steal each other’s hats, yell greetings to each other, sing, gossip, and generally change the hall volume from 0 decibels to 130 decibels in 10 seconds flat. All except one girl, “Rudy.” When others exchange greetings and chatter, she walks with her head down and tries to blend into the crowd. She waits in the middle of the hall as the student with a locker next to hers spreads his backpack, lunch bag, gym bag, and a host of other school supplies across the floor, blocking her access to her locker. When she finally gains access, she works deftly at her combination, hurrying to not be late so that she can slink, unnoticed, into her homeroom seat. Each morning during the Pledge of Allegiance, I also whisper my own special prayer in my head, “God, grant me patience as I seek to reach each individual child today.”
“Rudy” is what I call ‘one of my projects’- a student I refuse to abandon just because she is not like the others. I tried calling on “Rudy” in class once. I looked at “Rudy’s” paper ahead of time, so I knew she had a correct, insightful answer. She did not reply, but rather stared like a deer in headlights. I changed the subject and called on another student. I didn’t try that again.
One day, each child was told to share something he/she thought about what we had just read. They were also allowed to “piggyback” by agreeing with or disagreeing with a comment that was already made and explaining why. When it came to her turn, “Rudy” could not even say ‘pass,’ so I prompted the next child to share to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment.
Every time we had a public speaking assignment, she would linger after class until all the other students left and would ask (in the tiniest mouse of a voice) if she could present to just myself during lunch. Each time I agreed, but each time I also encouraged her to try by the end of the year. Would I ever get through to her? Could I help her to see how amazing she is? Would she ever speak in public?
“Rudy” has never been disrespectful nor insubordinate, but rather is just extremely shy. She is not stupid. In fact, she was one of the few students to earn an A+ on her literary analysis essay on a Steinbeck novella we had read. She smiles at my corny jokes and proves she is participating in class (in her own way) by reacting with facial expressions and giving eye contact to the speaker.
A few weeks ago, I assigned the students to create a parody based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Students were told that they could work alone or with a partner of their choosing. As students started their planning, I nonchalantly dropped an index card on “Rudy’s” desk.
You are amazing. You are smart, witty, clever, highly intelligent, kind, sweet, strong, and beautiful inside and out. Now YOU need to believe it. Your voice deserves to be heard.
The bell rang, and I didn’t think much of it.
The next day, “Rudy” happened to be sitting next to “Mary” and the two of them started to work together. Still, I didn’t think much of it. In fact, I only thought about it when the bell rang and “Rudy” and “Mary” left the classroom with the rest of the students. The next day would be presentation day. Perhaps “Rudy” would ask to present at lunch later in the day or the next morning. She never did.
On presentation day, “Mary” volunteered to present her song parody first. I held my breath as “Rudy” got up in front of the room with her. They sang! They sang about how the time before us is our own and how even Scrooge was simply misunderstood.
It was in that moment that I realized that “Rudy” had needed patience, love, and encouragement in order to shine. She needed someone to believe in her. She needed to trust me and to trust her peers. She needed to feel safe before she could let her voice be heard, before she could begin to show her true self.
Rudy reminds me of a similar situation. Rewind to 2009. A litter of pups was dumped at a West Virginia shelter. Overcrowded, noisy, and unable to keep up with an influx of the unwanted, unloved strays, the shelter reached out to S & L Animal Rescue in New Jersey. Frannie was one of this litter. Her black fur was flaked with white dandruff caused by stress and the dehydration from previously living on the streets. While the shelter did the best they could, Frannie was scared as her brothers got adopted and only she and her sister were left.
A woman named Lisa came and put Frannie and her sister in a crate. She told them that they would be part of the soda litter and would be renamed Pepsi and Coke. While they stopped occasionally for breaks to potty and eat, it was still incredibly scary. At least the loud shelter was a stable jail. This one was on wheels!
Pepsi (formerly Frannie) was no less scared when she was brought to Dee’s house. Dee gave Pepsi and Coke everything they needed- warm blankets, food, water, toys, treats, attention- but she knew when Pepsi and her Coke needed to take a break.
On January 31, 2009, Dee and her husband Paul awakened early and gave Pepsi and Coke baths. The pups were not thrilled to say the least and had no idea what was happening. They were just getting used to Dee’s house. Why were they moving again? So much change. So much uncertainty. These pups were safe, but they did not know what would happen next and they were panicky.
Dee brought Pepsi and Coke to a small pet store that was packed with people and other dogs. Crates, laughter, talking, toys, barking- lots of barking- and hands- so many, many hands- patting, petting. It was so overwhelming! The stress dandruff Dee had washed off Pepsi came right back.
A family with two young children asked to see Pepsi. They took Pepsi to a quiet aisle. Pepsi wouldn’t stop shaking from fear. She did manage to give the man a small kiss. It was in that moment that he and his family knew that Pepsi would be a part of their family.
Pepsi went home with the family. They let her run around the fenced yard, but Pepsi was afraid to go into the house. Finally, she was cornered. She whimpered. She went into the house with her tail between her legs. She hid behind furniture.
Slowly, gently, over days and even weeks, the family lured her out of hiding with treats and let her sniff their hands. It took incredible patience, but it was worth it. Once she trusted the family, she was a new pup.
Fast forward to 2017. Pepsi Francesca (her middle name a nod to her original West Virginia roots) is a happy member of our family and we can’t imagine life without her. From her adorable underbite to her “say-hi-to-me-say-hi-to-me-say-hi-to-me” greetings, she always keeps us smiling.
In animal rescue, there is something called the “decompression phase.” This is the time when the new family is supposed to be working hard to keep stress low and to help the pup feel safe in his new environment. Often the family wants to play with the pup too much or train the dog too fast. If that happens, the pup might become scared and take longer to adjust. When the dog is still timid or still has accidents, people think the dog is “broken,” when, in reality, they just needed to be more patient and take it slower. Those pups are NOT broken, but simply misunderstood. Instead, when rescuing a new pup, we must realize that, just like people, pups need time to adjust, to feel safe, and to trust. We need to be patient as we gently love them and allow them to feel secure.
As 2018 knocks on our door and time continues to speed away, let us remember to take time to take a breath and say a prayer for patience. Author J.M. Storm says it quite eloquently, “Patience is more than simply learning to wait. It is having learned what is worth your time.” And aren’t they ALL worth our time?