Reprinted with permission from Rachel Macy Stafford, also known as Hands Free Mama.
*Name has been changed
I was two years shy of becoming a mother when I learned my greatest lesson about parenting. This information was not gleaned from a New York Times bestseller, a renowned pediatrician, or an experienced parent. It came from a 10-year-old boy born to a drug-addicted mother, with an Individualized Education Plan thicker than an encyclopedia—a boy with permanent scars along the side of his left arm from a beating with an extension cord when he was three.
Kyle* taught me the one and only thing I really needed to know about loving a child through the challenges of life.
This is my story …
It had been a difficult move. I left my family and friends and the beloved mid-western state where I’d lived most of my life. My new home was thousands of miles away from anything I knew. It was hot—all the time. There were no seasons and teaching jobs were hard to come by. Having seven years experience as a behavior specialist, I was up for a challenge. I would accept any job if it meant I could do what I was born to do—teach.
I accepted a teaching position in a classroom for children with an array of educational diagnoses. They were students with severe learning and behavioral difficulties who’d been shuffled from school to school. So far, no program in the district was able to meet their challenging needs.
The first few months of school were difficult. It was not unusual for me to cry as I made my 45-minute commute to the inner city. It required a deep breath to even open the classroom door, but I came back every day praying this would be the day—a breakthrough to one broken soul.
On this particular morning, I was excited. The other lead teacher and I had spent weeks teaching the children appropriate behavior for public outings. We would be going putt-putting and out to lunch. Miraculously, most of the children in class earned this privilege—only a few had not. Alternative arrangements were made for those students while we took the field trip.
We had an extensive plan in place to make the departure as smooth as possible. But due to the explosive behavior of many of the students, even the best laid plans could quickly turn sour.
Kyle was one of the students who had not earned the field trip, and he was determined to make that disappointment be known.
In the corridor between classrooms, he began screaming, cursing, spitting, and swinging at anything within striking distance. Once his outburst subsided, he did what he’d done at all his other schools, at home, even once at a juvenile detention center when he was angry—he ran.
The crowd of onlookers that congregated during the spectacle watched in disbelief as Kyle ran straight into the heavy morning traffic in front of the school.
I heard someone shout, “Call the police.”
Based on the information in Kyle’s file, I knew the officers would locate him and place him on a 5150 hold for a psychiatric evaluation.
But I could not just stand there. So I ran after him.
Kyle was at least a foot taller than me. And he was fast. His older brothers were track stars at the nearby high school. But I had worn running shoes for the field trip, and I could run long distances without tiring. I would at least be able to keep in him my sight and know he was alive.
With the agility of a professional athlete, Kyle dodged the moving vehicles in his path. After several blocks of running directly into on-coming traffic, he slowed his pace. Although it was still morning, the tropical sun was bearing down on the black tarmac baking anyone crazy enough to be running full speed on it.
Kyle took a sharp left and began walking through a dilapidated strip mall. Standing next to a trash compactor, he bent over with his hands on his knees. He was heaving to catch his breath. That is when he saw me. I must have looked ridiculous—the front of my lightweight blouse soaked with sweat, my once-styled hair now plastered to the side of my beet-red face. He stood up abruptly like a frightened animal that thought it was alone suddenly discovering he’d been spotted.
But it was not a look of fear.
I saw his body relax. He did not attempt to run again. Kyle stood and watched me approach. My exhaustion caused me to slow to a walk.
Kyle remained still.
I had no idea what I was going to say or what I was going to do, but I kept walking closer.
We locked eyes, and I willed every ounce of compassion and understanding in my heart toward his own.
He opened his mouth to speak when a police car pulled up, abruptly filling the space between Kyle and me. The principal of the school and an officer got out. They spoke calmly to Kyle who went willingly into the back of the vehicle. I did not come close enough to hear their words, but I didn’t take my eyes off Kyle’s face. His eyes never left mine … even as they drove away.
It was days before Kyle would be allowed to return to school. I shared my disappointment regarding the turn of events with Kyle’s speech therapist who was familiar with Kyle’s past history and family situation.
She placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “No one ever ran after him before, Rachel. No one. They just let him go.”
But I couldn’t help but feel that I had failed him … that I should have done more or said more … that I should have fixed the situation, or better yet, prevented the situation.
Kyle eventually came back to school. I quickly noticed that when he had a choice of which teacher to work with or which teacher to accompany him to special classes, he chose me. As weeks passed, he was glued to my side, complying with instructions, attempting to do his work, and once in awhile even smiling. For a child with severe attachment issues, it was quite amazing that he was developing a bond with me.
One day on the way to art class, Kyle unexpectedly grasped my hand. It was unusual for a boy his age and size to hold his teacher’s hand, but I knew I must act like it was the most normal thing in the world.
And then he leaned in and quietly said something I will never forget.
“I love you, Miss Stafford,” he whispered. And then, “I never told anyone that before.”
Part of me wanted to ask, “Why me?”
But instead I simply relished the moment—an unimaginable breakthrough from the child whose file bore the words: “Unable to express love or maintain a loving relationship with another human being.”
Besides, I knew the turning point. Things changed the day he ran, and I ran after him—even though I didn’t have the right words … even though I wasn’t able to save him from the mess he was in.
It was the day I didn’t throw my hands up in the air deciding he was too fast … a waste of time and effort … a lost cause.
It was the day my mere presence was enough to make a profound difference.
Ten years have passed since I’ve seen Kyle. I no longer live in the same state that I did back then. But I often think of him. When I am out running … when I am to the point where my legs are tired and aching … I think of him.
And I think of him when those really hard parenting dilemmas come my way—problems derived from inside and outside of the home—issues that make me want to beat my head against the wall or lower it in despair. I think of Kyle in those moments when I don’t know what to do or what to say when I look into my children’s troubled eyes.
That is when I see Kyle’s face and remember I don’t always have to have the answer. Because sometimes there is no clear-cut answer.
And I remember I don’t always have to “fix” their troubled hearts. Because there will be times when I can’t.
I think of Kyle and remember the power of presence. Because it’s possible to say, “I won’t let you go through this alone,” without muttering a single word.
Thank you, Kyle, for revealing the key to loving a child through the challenges of life.
Sometimes our mere presence is enough.
Sometimes it is exactly what is needed to change a dismal situation into one of hope.