Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.“ This is mine: Every child needs a champion. As the world seems to be spinning off its axis, this statement is especially true. Children need champions – people who help them feel safe, cultivate their curiosity, and instill hope. I became a teacher because I wanted to be a champion for young people. I have been blessed that I have been able to do this important work for the last forty-two years. So blessed.
But I am by far not the only one. Rita Pierson was an energetic, dynamic, educator, who spoke passionately about being a teacher champion. Her TED Talk – Every Kid Needs a Champion – is so inspiriting. She exclaimed, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possible be.” As I listened to her speak, I nodded my head in agreement. Yes, yes, yes, that is such a powerful statement! I believe that connection is the strongest foundation we can provide to students and their parents. When building that connection during my years of teaching, I was never disappointed; it always paid off – parents trusted and students blossomed. Rita quoted Dr. James P. Comer, Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Comer stated that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Comer developed the School Development Program (SDP) model that helps teachers understand the link between development, academic learning and the preparation of students for adult life. Rita explained, and I can attest to the fact that, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. I purposefully created positive connections with my students, making them and their own learning my central focus for the year, and sometimes that focus would last many, many years. I am still in contact with some students I’ve taught over thirty years ago. It is so rewarding to see them grow into happy and creative adults.
This approach is what I call an “I SEE YOU” mindset, a term taken from Leon Logothetis, who created the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries. I had the opportunity to hear Leon speak in person this winter, pre-COVID. He was so inspiring. What struck me was his one true sentiment: “As a kid I felt very disconnected. I felt very depressed. I felt no sense of purpose and to be quite honest, I didn’t feel seen at all.” Despite that, Leon grew up to become a successful London broker. Although he had financial success, he continued to feel unmotivated and depressed. Leon decided to turn in a new direction. He quit his job and began to travel all over the world connecting with people through the sheer simple act of kindness. His life work is now to talk about the importance of connection. He attests that human interactions have an amazing healing power. Throughout his presentation, I cried – because he would look out into the crowd, and I swear he was looking right at me, and he could “see” who I was. I know it seems preposterous, but I instantly felt connected and inspired. Kindness was a tenet I knew well, and it was affirming to be reminded of its importance.
Early in my life, I was lucky to have a champion. He was my maternal grandfather, Charlie. He was the model of quiet, caring and unconditional love. Charlie looked after me full-time when my mother made the decision to go back to school to become a teacher. I spent wonderful long days at my grandfather’s house. He never once got impatient. He was a tall man with a soft deep voice, and he always, always expressed how much he loved me. He told me all the things I was good at doing, and he helped me to learn things I did not yet know. I didn’t have to be anything or anyone else. I was me, and Charlie let me know that that was enough. It is those experiences with Charlie that shaped me as a teacher. He was an incredibly strong and positive role model. I was fortunate to have him in my life, even if it was for just a short time. That short time made its mark indelibly on my heart and my path in this world.
Breakfast of Champions
According to Grandpa Charlie,
The breakfast of champions
Consisted of black coffee,
Rye toast and butter,
And a soft-boiled egg
In a mint green egg cup –
Tap, tap, tap..
He sliced off the top of the egg,
Dipped his spoon into the golden goo
Looking over at me
Above his dark rimmed glasses,
Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,
The astronaut’s orange juice,
Two soft-boiled eggs –
Chop, chop, chop…
He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,
The delicate rim decorate
With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.
Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,
Pushed it gently across the table,
Then he returned to his newspaper,
As I took an inventory of the kitchen:
Trying to remember every warm inch,
Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors
On my spoon: salty, sweet, crunch, smooth –
We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,
Just an old man and his granddaughter
Starting the day off right.
Red Plaid Hunting Cap
The cold’s set in,
My grandfather shrugs on
His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,
Pulls on the matching cap,
And take my small mittened hand.
We head out the door
And walk towards town.
Grandpa points periodically
To the broken sidewalk,
So I won’t trip.
This is our morning walk
To buy the paper or milk,
Or a crusty loaf of bread,
Down tree-lined streets
We go hand in hand.
On a hot summer night,
Fireflies float through the yard
Like stars you can hold in your hand.
A large, wooden table
Is set under the willow tree
And the big, green-striped
Melons lie ready, waiting.
As Grandpa Charlie slices
Thick, red wedges.
Eager hands grab two at a time,
Soon the table is covered
With sticky, pink juice.
Seven cousins sip and slurp,
Tossing rinds into a pile,
Spitting the shiny, black seeds
At each other and laughing,
The sweetness of summer
Dripping from our chins.
Too Soon Taken
When I was seven
I still don’t understand
How and why he died.
Too soon take from us –
He was my superhero,
He was my champion,
I was his curly-head Josephine,
His beloved granddaughter.
All these long years
I’ve missed him,
Glimpses of memory
Float by like wispy dreams,
I try to hold one –
Thick, shining silver hair,
Large, rough gentle hands,
My eternal protector.
7 thoughts on “Every child needs a champion.”
Beautiful poetry with gorgeous imagery. I love this picture of your champion.
What a champion to have in your life! Your poetry is moving. Yes, everyone needs a champion in their life.
JOJO!!! That is simply fantabulous. I love getting to meet your grandpa and your younger self through your poetry. It was as though I was with you at the table, on the walk, with your cousins. Thanks so much for inviting us in. And thanks for being a champion of your students, and your colleagues. It’s a gift!
This post is a double gift – first your thoughts and resources then wonderful poetry. Thank you!
Beautiful! My little sister, the grand mistress of words! My meaning is totally politically correct!
I am always happy to read your poetry and I love the inspiration for it, too. Your line in the last poem — “All these long years/I’ve missed him” is one that resonates for me.
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Thanks, Ruth. I think about my grandfather and I only had 7 years with him. He made such a profound impact on me. Throughout my life, when times got hard, I would talk to him, I regard him as my guardian angel, and I believe he is. Serendipitous thing – when my husband and I set our wedding date for February 9th – I didn’t know that was Charlie’s birthday until my mother told me. I knew that that was a good omen, and it has been for the last 36 years.