Each day I leave my nice, cushy neighborhood to drive across town to my daughter’s school. It is an 18-minute lesson in gratitude and guilt.
The route is nearly equal parts churches, daycares, convenience stores, bars and boarded up buildings. People wait for busses in clothing not nearly warm enough for the subzero temps. It is a daily reminder that my upper-middle class life is one of privilege.
Because my freelance work allows me flexibility, I regularly spend time in my daughter’s classroom. I have the privilege of seeing her teacher in action, of seeing the children learn and watching their dynamics.
I also see things I wish I could unsee. It sounds fancy when I say my daughter attends a French immersion school, but this is an inner city public school. It is one of only two good elementary schools in a struggling district, where breakfast is provided to any child who wants it and a good percentage of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Some days my heart breaks a little. I’ve seen kids with lunches made entirely of Lunchables and Hostess cupcakes. I’ve seen kids with Air Jordans but no winter boots. I’ve talked with children eager for just a little bit of extra attention.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve watched one such boy swagger about the classroom at just 6 years of age, playing the tough guy and getting into trouble. Just before the winter break, he dropped the tough guy act and threw his around my waist. Being a mother, I responded instinctually—I hugged back. And somehow I have become a safe haven for this boy.
On a field trip this week, he clung to me the entire afternoon. When I interacted with my daughter, I could see the longing in his eyes. I don’t know the details of his home life, but I have suspected they aren’t great.
Still, I was unprepared when he told me he wished I were his mother. That his mother wanted him to live with his father and his father didn’t want him either.
How do you respond to such statements? There is no response to that because it is a situation that shouldn’t exist. I don’t live under a rock. I realize thousands of children and families struggle for survival every day, but until this week, I had never looked into the big, brown eyes of a little boy who has a void that I can never fill.
This little boy makes me feel grateful for my life. He makes me want to hug my own child more. He makes me strive to be more generous with my heart and my time.
By mid-summer he will likely have forgotten all about me, but I suspect that 20 years from now I will still wonder what became of him.
All I have to give this boy are a few moments of kindness. It feels like so very little to offer a boy who appears to need to much. Yet, kindness is the one thing that all of us can offer to one another. It isn’t always enough, but perhaps it is at least something.