06 Jun

Tattoo Kids

This is a blog post I wrote a solid year ago and did nothing with. It’s a year old, but the sentiments haven’t changed! Actually, it predicts many of the reasons that eventually led me to decide to embark on mission!

I know I should love everyone, maybe even strive to love with less favoritism, but my love for those with good taste in books or a heart for the less fortunate is instant and outsized. So my friend Maddie, a tiny blonde bombshell with tiger-mom love for the world and impeccable taste in books, resides dead center in my heart. She recommended a book to me months ago, and this past week I finally made it to the Memphis public library to pick it up. In my excitement at finally being in a library to get a book for MYSELF, I tripped up the escalator stairs, gashed open my shin, nearly  bled on a pile of books, and lost my library card down the mysterious blackness between the escalator steps. I take comfort in the poetic justice of sustaining physical scars in my quest to get a book entitled, “Tattoos on the Heart.”

I highly recommend this collection of stories by Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with and rehabilitates gang members in L.A. at Homeboy Industries. At turns profound, humbling, hopeful, and heartbreaking, his stories cut to the core of what loving is actually all about. Fr. G’s thesis is that loving means to communicate to another person that who they are is enough, is perfect, is what God wanted when he created them. When we love someone, anyone, like that...they get tattooed to our hearts. They stay there, whether or not we remember them consciously. As I read Fr. G’s words, I saw my own heart in my mind’s eye with kids’ names etched around its curves. One by one, almost forgotten names, faces, and stories crystallized, and I made a realization. I am not a teacher because I like to teach. I am a teacher because those children wrote their names on my heart, leaving it permanently altered. So this is a thank you letter to just a few of my tattoo kids- the ones why likely never guessed how they sunk through my skin and seeped into my heart. (All the children’s names are changed).

My first and oldest tattoo is the shape of Spain and filled with soft gorgeous Spanish names: Alicia, Lupe, and Belen. My rock bottom hardest teaching experience was a summer mission to Barcelona, Spain I took when I was fifteen.  (Urban education has never ever been harder than that, but maybe Honduras will top it!) These three girls epitomized my experience.

Alicia was  a pale, freckled ten year old girl who avoided conversation and, sometimes, eye contact. That cruel phrase, “painfully awkward,” was made for her. Strangely, she became my shadow, constantly hovering in the periphery - equal parts endearing and annoying. When I discovered that she lived with her cousins and never ever got to see her mother, a reporter who travelled around Europe, annoyance melted.  I, too,  was a lonely, scared, homesick, clueless American hanging in God’s shadow, terrified of both my abilities and my weaknesses. Alicia and I were one and the same. Why this lonely little girl chose to make her daily orbits around me I have no idea, but I thank her for being my Pluto. I trust she’s found her place in the sky.

Lina, on the other hand, never seemed to touch the ground. She was  a rubber band child, preferring handsprings and cartwheels to prosaic walking. She always gave full-strength, two-armed hugs and literally never stopped smiling. Ever. Perhaps I was not much like Lina, but Lina was who I wanted to be: open hearted, smiling, cartwheeling into her future. 

Belen was my first “problem” kid. During our first week of camp, she accomplished the following in short order: 1. Trap a counselor (me) in a cabin, 2. Throw another counselor’s ipod out of a two storey window out of spite, 3. Learn two words in English: Shut Up. (Note: I was her English teacher!) She tired those two words out, fraying my last nerve. Catching me in a moment of sheer exasperation, the consecrated woman who ran the camp pulled me aside and asked me to be compassionate: Belen’’s parents were in the middle of a divorce. Did I even have a choice at that point? I committed myself to being kind to her regardless of her actions. 

One of my tasks included directing the girls in a play in English. Belen was terrified and belligerent, so I gave her the shortest set of lines, but insisted that she absolutely would perform on that stage on the last day of camp. None of her many tantrums would move me. And perform she did, mumbling her handful of English words. I sighed- grateful to be finished fighting her. A few minutes after the performance, she tapped me on the shoulder. Anna, esta es mi familia, she said, bringing forward her father and teenage brother. Papa, this is my best friend, she said, indicating yours truly, mouth agape. Once the shock subsided I realized I actually want to be Belen too, able to confidently claim best friends from former enemies, able to convert myself from bully into friend.

My second tattoo is shaped like a big wolf paw: the symbol for RecPac, a summer recreational camp where I worked during  two college summers.  As camp director, I was the go-to person for behavioral issues. Getting to the root cause of bad behavior became my favorite part of the job, although I met with plenty of defeats along the way. Tom, an eleven year old, was the worst camper of my first year: attention-seeking, hyperactive, and disrespectful. Usually, his behavior was loud and obnoxious, but one day, he completely shut down, refusing to answer questions or make eye contact. You can’t really force a kid to talk...so I took him on a walk around the gym, asking him yes or no questions to which he would nod. Finally I had pinpointed the generally vicinity of the problem: home. His tongue was untied. “I miss my dog.” I tried not to roll my eyes. Was he really dishing this level of crazy because of a dog? I reigned in judgment. Did your dog die? I asked. No. But he lives at my mom’s house. And when I’m with him, I miss my dad. But when I’m with my dad, I miss my dog. Tom’s displaced heart, torn between two homes, had been wreaking havoc on him and was taking his revenge on our camp. I told him that I understood that he was in a pretty hard place and that I’d talk to his dad about how he was feeling. Nothing very impressive, but he was worlds better for me after that simple conversation, resuming mischief on a smaller scale, infinitely preferable than stony silence. Poor Tom, you know I do the exact same thing! When I’m scared or frustrated, I retreat into stony silence. I make my family and friends beg it out of me. Sometimes solving a problem doesn’t take complicated strategies or expertise. All we need is someone to say, So that’s what’s bothering you. That’s hard. I’m listening.

Colby, Luck, and Jimmy were my country boys, scruffy, troublesome 4th graders I met during student teaching. Their story is my favorite, but it would take an entire blog post. But I am deeply grateful for them proving to me that you always, always, always give second, third, and fourth chances to kids.

 I spent one week in Honduras on mission the Spring of my junior year of college. I still count that week as the closest to heaven I’ve ever been. I will never ever forget reaching the village we were to serve and seeing a mass of children running, running as fast as they could up a hill to meet us. It was pure love mobilized on sixty dusty brown feet. I’ll never forget one sweet boy, a very skinny, dirty kid who seemed like an outcast, rolling a tire outside of the newly constructed church. I watched him roll the tire for a while, and then invited him to come inside. He brought the tire in with him. We prayed. And heaven met dusty earth for a minute. I’ll never forget the children who raced through the five or six streets that made up their town, gathering flowers and old cups to make into vases so that we could honor the Blessed Mother. I’ll never forget being showered with scraps of notes written in bad Spanish that were their thank you cards, promising forever-love after just knowing me a week. I imagine that's what it feels like to meet strangers in heaven. 

The kids that I met at the after school center in the projects in Steubenville left an irrevocable tattoo on my heart and introduced me to the privilege of teaching those who receive far less than they deserve, a vocation that I hope God continues to  call me to for the rest of my life.  From the adorable three year old girl who peed on me on my first day to sweet DeTonne who looked sadly at us through the window, unable to enter because he’d started too many fights. From Colin, a boy I had mentally labelled  as a “taker” but who, when I got of my high horse and asked him, told me he really just wanted my rosary, to Kingston, a kid just out of alternative school who only knew how to manipulate but had a dad who was going to love him through his crazy life. Steubenville taught me to love and deeply appreciate city kids, and so the MLK center is forever inked on my heart.

When I became a “real” teacher, I got a job in an beautifully diverse Catholic school in inner city Memphis. Now the names on my heart are in a variety of languages: Spanish, Swahili, French, Nepali, Amharic...My 6th, 7th, and 8th graders have been pretty much my whole life for these past two years in Memphis, a fact that doesn’t make me feel deprived one bit. How could I feel unhappy when I have so many people to love? 

Take Jose, the wild 6th grader who couldn’t write a sentence, couldn’t sit still for more than sixty seconds, and told me one day through tears how much he missed his mother who had died of cancer. To see him leave the school broke my heart. But  every time he comes by  to say hi and boast about his new achievements my heart skips a beat. It also taught me to trust that God will always provide for his kids, even when they leave our sight.

Or Teresa, Luna, Mark, and JoJo- four kids who, without one bit of parental prodding, walked to church every Sunday at nine for extra catechism classes so that they could receive their first confession and Communion. Would you have had that persistence in 3rd, 6th, or 7th grader? They did.

Or a certain group of 7th grade boys who hang around the neighborhood every day after school and one evening roped me into helping them rescue an abandoned puppy. (They wanted to name her Gringa because she was white, but I convinced them to think outside color labels. She’s Rose now).

Or my entire 8th grade class who blows it on a regular basis, sometimes making some very seriously idiotic decisions, but also had the guts to perform Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s original language, some of them memorizing 90+ lines. 

Or Abdul, a rather deep seventh grader who just yesterday gave me this gift  before we started a trip together to XC states in Nashville. 

Abdul: Ms. Smith. You know why I like teachers? 

Me: Why?

Abdul: They give you the best gift. They give you their time.

And in return for a little of our time, Abdul, we get to keep you on our hearts. Tattooed. Forever.

* The email will not be published on the website.