I always feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity in my school career to work with many kind and devoted teaching assistants. I know these fine people can feel under -appreciated, but they are truly invaluable! As Lent began this year, I found myself thinking about one lady and her story in particular. This lady worked as a teaching assistant, and was widely known for her compassion and kindness toward the students. As did the rest of the school community, I found her to be a lovely, generous and yet reserved person. She came to me one day with two requests: that she could provide lunch one day for the whole staff and that she be allowed to take the same day as a personal leave. Her offer to provide lunch for a staff of 20 was extraordinarily generous one, and I was even more surprised to find out that she had done this many times before. It always coincided with the date she requested every year for a personal leave day, and I wondered how this was going to happen. She assured me that she would bring all the lunch in before school, fully prepared, so it would be ready to be pulled out of the refrigerator at lunch time. She explained that the lunch was her way of thanking her friends, but wouldn’t be there to share it with us and simply smiled when I commented on her generosity, but was a little puzzled by the gesture, and a reason for thanking us. With that smile but no further explanation, she went on her way, and sure enough, prepared a delicious lunch for everyone. And it was truly a feast of many dishes of her culture, appreciated by all. As we ate the story of how and why this gift came to be began to emerge. It seems that, a number of years prior, our lovely staff member had her life ripped apart in a a split seconds time. She and her family were travelling on a local secondary road, when another vehicle blasted through a stop sign and rammed her vehicle, taking her whole family from her. She was the only one left. I was stunned and saddened at the story of such profound loss.
Such, then, is the meaning behind taking that particular day every year as personal leave. She attends Mass, and spends the day in prayer and reflection, devoting it to her family – and of course this is entirely understandable. What is a most humbling, though, is that through her own pain came this extraordinary gesture of giving to her friends, her way of thanking us for our continued friendship and support. We enjoyed a delicious lunch made all the more special because of the love in the gesture. We prayed together in thanksgiving for our friend, for solace for her wounds, and for her giving and humble spirit.
Our friend’s gesture gave us pause. As educators, we recognize the critical value of safety at school for our students, and throw all of our efforts into creating a challenging, nurturing, and safe learning environment for them. Although admirable, that common focus can blind us to our responsibility to take care of each other as adults.Not only the students come to school every day with a life story; our staff members have their own stories which are constantly put aside in the busyness of the day. We often have no idea what is happening outside school time in the lives of our colleagues. And in all honesty, its a rare move when one staff member thanks another simply for friendship and support.
All that can change. Just a personal commitment to take a few minutes each day to be a friend to other staff members (especially the ones to whom a friendship seems unlikely). More than the perfunctory morning hello’s or the have a good night’s; more than assuming that the quiet staff member must be fine, or she’d say something. The recognition that we can only care for the students if we feel cared for ourselves will be the feast that nourishes us all.