How we ever got to 6th grade graduation is a mystery. My strongest memory from elementary school was the one where I’m jammed, as a 35 year-old, into the minuscule desk my son would occupy for the next year. In the midst of it I knew there was a lesson for me in kindergarten. Even that first night, dizzy with the prospects of my eldest even arriving at that place where he would leave home alone (with 40 other children on a yellow school bus) the following morning, I knew. The sadness that toddlerhood was surely over mixed with the single-mom relief of no more day care bills for one child. She must have been a magician to teach me anything that night, but she did, and it is with me still.
When I met Julie Grinell I knew she was the right one for my kid, but I had no idea how she would go on to change these lives, my own among them. Her kind eyes sparkled at us all, individually. She’s one of those people who makes you feel supremely special, even though you know she does that for everyone. Wavy salt and pepper hair floating well past her shoulders, she reminded me immediately of Ms. Frizzle from Magic Schoolbus. She’s a PhD in Biochemistry who felt that call to teaching in grad school, and just could not ignore it. Praise be.
My sweet boy had no desire to go to school. He loved preschool too much; on orientation night the enthusiastic teacher conducting his evaluation could not get him excited even about the field trip to the firehouse. “My school now has a firehouse across the street. I like seeing it every day instead.” He’d be a tough sell.
As I settled into a desk barely 18 inches off the ground, knees named up to my chest, with a stack of enrollment forms up to my chin (hadn’t I already enrolled him with as many documents just months before?) I checked boxes, filled out emergency contacts, and attempted to simultaneously soak in all Ms. Grinell had to divest. In her flowing skirt and American Indian turquoise, there is little I remember of that night other than that place in my gut where excitement mills companionably with fear. Her cadence slowed in emphasis as she imparted something I live by to this day: “There is only one thing I want you to remember this year. Every kindergartener, without exception, is doing their very best every minute of everyday.”
I didn’t know how much I would need that advice or with whom until Sam came home to report that Max was a crazy kid. The reports were vague at first, but grew more tangible and concerning as the first month progressed. I heard about Max the first night of kindergarten. He’d broken the pencil on the desk in a fit of anger. The next day he hit another child on the playground, and by the end of the week he had struck the teacher.
Everyday there was something. I was concerned for the safety in the classroom, but I was concerned about something perhaps more lasting for Sam and the other kids. Max was the only black child in the classroom. I didn’t want Sam or others to begin thinking that race was in any way associated with violence.
I was in touch with Mrs. Grinell about the happenings in her classroom of little desks and fragile hearts. She was asking for help from the school and keeping everyone safe. Her message never changed: Every child is doing his very best, every day, even Max. A circle of parents began advocating for Max to be removed from the class, and all I could think was that would be a death sentence for him. This was before the referendum allowing funding for smaller classroom sizes, literacy aids, and teaching tools. He needed Mrs. Grinell, who would, with every ounce of her being, believe he was doing his very best and help him shape that into a best that worked to keep everyone safe, and allowed Max to thrive. I started a not-too-quiet campaign. I wrote to Mrs. Grinell, I met with her. I advocated to the school system at all levels for extra help in this burdened classroom.
Most importantly, I started to talk actively with Sam about what was happening, and ensured we talked about the many reasons someone might resort to violence to solve problems. I let him be heard, coached him on staying safe, and asked him to find some times when Max was in a good place to be a friend to him. And then, I repeated that ever-important lesson back to Sam. Max is doing his very best every single day, and he just needed some help to figure out a better way to solve problems.
Mrs. Grinell had her plate more than full that year. Kindergarten is that time when a bunch of kids no one knows yet enter the school system. Sometimes a deck gets stacked too heavily with kids who need a little extra, and Julie had her deck overflowing. In a private conversation, Julie confessed to me that there had been an offer to remove Max from her class-- he was clearly the most challenging among many others. She had refused. " If he leaves me, I’m not sure we will get him back." She demanded help from the school psychologist and social worker when her more gentle requests went unheeded.
Befriending his mom, I learned that Max’s dad was in prison, so was his uncle, and that there was indeed much he’d lived through which contributed to his behavior. Sam and Max became friends. We went to his birthday party and had him for playdates. I volunteered in the classroom, Julie’s solution for getting extra help in an already stretched school system. By the end of the year, Max was attending class every day with nary an outbreak. There were times when he still needed to go out to the hall to calm himself down so he didn’t harm someone, but he had been loved into a solution that worked.
Sam and Max did not become best friends, but they are constant playground pals. I get to eat lunch with Max when I visit Sam on occasion for lunch at school— he always gives me a warm smile and a hug; I like to think we are both recalling how very far he’s come.
On Monday, I attended the promotion ceremony for 6th grade. There were so many reasons I could have shed tears at 6th grade promotion, but there was only one that made them flow. Seeing Max, smile as wide as the stage, getting promoted to middle school, diploma in hand.
There are no guarantees in life, so I don’t know that any of these kids won’t end up in the corrections system. What I know is this: Max’s chances of being another part of a sick statistic of racial injustice was a lot higher before Julie Grinell came into our lives. After she graced him with her love, showing the other students the way, and perhaps more importantly, taught a team of concerned parents to do the same, Max experienced transformation, and I continue to learn that lesson every day. It’s not just those kindergarteners who are doing their very best— it’s all of us— our team members at work, our pre-teens in their moody angst…we are all doing our very best every day.
Radical love is not just about loving from the safety of the sidelines, or reminding the ones you care about when you sense danger. it’s about loving someone into who they were created to be, even when you can’t see the light today.