A Candle in the Darkness

This week I am celebrating.  I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing!  As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years.  My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.

Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people.  I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years.  I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family.  She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me.  I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process.  Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.

A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog.  I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work.  I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers.  They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.

When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become?  What could I accomplish?  It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language.  Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:

I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)

Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:

My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened!  The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!  

William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker.  In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up.  I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.

I have been teaching for over four decades.  I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know.  Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning.  I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them.  I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness.  Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives.  Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people.  I am very grateful.

This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research.  He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom.  I marveled at the list of his publications.  But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.”  When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings.  Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue.  All things were possible.  In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely.  It was a wonderful time.  And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down.  His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned.  We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say.  It did not take away the pain.  We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing.  More and more – more and more rapidly.  And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people.  Soon we had no more Lego people.  I brought this problem up to the class.  I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.

Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person!  What was it doing there?  Who put it all the way up there?  I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence.  I asked them what they thought happened.  No one said a word.  Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there.  He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears.  Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone.  I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place.  I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones.  Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed.  One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales.  Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors.  I encouraged him to write.  As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter.  I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise.  Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig.  Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row.  They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow.  There was a little light in the darkness.  A small glimmer of hope.

And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for.  Marco is happy and healthy and safe.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding out a candle to light our way as we tell our stories.

12 thoughts on “A Candle in the Darkness

  1. I love reading this story about Marco, the Lego people,his play and how you encouraged him. What a gift to read of his life now and know that he is still creating. Isn’t Ruth the best? She has encouraged so many of us to share our stories.

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  2. What a sweet tribute to a wonderful woman! Your story is a light in the darkness, reminding me of the precious importance of both teaching and writing. Your students are so lucky to also have this light!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your blog post is a gift to your readers. My heart beat with compassion as I read Marco’s story. My heart nodded when you wrote about Ruth’s magic. My heart cheers with joy for your birthday. Happy Birthday! In Estonian too: Palju õnne sünnipëvaks!

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  4. Joanne,
    I’m glad you’ve been writing consistently. It’s such a happy habit! I love that your poems are beginning to grow strong roots and wings. I do hope you’ll keep pursuing your story.

    A couple of things:
    1. I love that a writing habit is a birthday gift to yourself.
    2. Annie Sullivan is my hero. I have loved her from the time I was a little girl, and as I’ve grown older, I understand her fierce determination brewed from love.
    3. One of my favorite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt: It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
    4. Be still my heart — Marco hiding Lego people; you returning the Lego person to the hiding spot to offer comfort to a child. Marco growing up and having an amazing brain…and the wisdom to paint.

    Your stories are a light in the world. I hope you write for another 52 weeks and another and another…

    love & hugs,
    ruth

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  5. I’m so glad you took Ruth’s invitation! If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here with tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart for the story of Marco. Ruth is the candle of light in the world. Keep sharing.

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  6. So many things I wish to say to you. Congratulations on 52 weeks – that is quite an accomplishment! And Happy Birthday! Your writing is beautiful and is also a light which you speak. I smile at Marco’s accomplishment, and I am positive that you are imprinted on his heart. Ruth is also a light in so many lives. I hope to be a little more active in this community so that I can get to know you better. Thank you for sharing your story and leaving a little light in my day.

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  7. I am so inspired by you and grateful that you are consistently writing. I love the way that you weave together your experiences and you offer so many practical ideas for my teaching and my life. I often find myself nodding in agreement at your words and cheering your students on! I totally agree that the impressions and connections that we make in the classroom are sacred and a microcosm of our human experience. One day, I will follow in your footsteps and get my own feet “out of the mud.” I wish you the happiest of birthdays and many years filled with inspiration and illumination. Shine On!

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  8. You always lift me up! When we talk together, I always feel validated. We are both teachers of the heart. And that’s what classrooms need more of. Be present. Be with your students. Thank you!

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  9. Happy Birthday! And thank you for sharing about your connection to Ruth, and what you learned from Helen Keller, and the story about Marco. I was clinging to every word.

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  10. oh my gosh … weeping. Thank you for being you, Jojo. For seeing all those children, loving them right where they were, and for helping them to see how fantabulous each one is. You are a gift.

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