“You Matter,” “I Matter,” “We Matter,” 40 fifth graders chanted in unison on our first day of elementary school where I teach in a high poverty area in Indiana. The first days of school are momentum building. Teachers pour on the positive praise, rewards, and reinforcement. In many elementary schools, this is also the honeymoon period. There are new clothes, new hair styles, new school supplies, and pep talks from parents that haven’t fallen on deaf ears quite yet.
My school is no different in many ways, but with the highest rates of child poverty in the city, there are unique barriers we face at the beginning of the school year. We are a “promise school,” meaning the district is committed to investing resources into our building. But the barriers are profound because of our poverty rates. Strong, experienced teachers request to work in our building, but the district moves them to more established schools. And while there is funding for technology, project-based learning initiatives, and school police officers, my classroom, for example, does not have doors, our desks are old and scratched, I have a small window, and the school battles a mice and cockroach infestation. If there was an emergency, there is no additional exit in my room that my students could actually get through with efficiency.
In light of the obstacles we face, Jesus reminds me that those who belong to him are promised his faithfulness, care, and compassion. He sees us, he knows our needs, and he loves us. I am reminded of this when a stranger writes me a $300 check for classroom snacks. Or, when partnering churches bring lunch and send in large donations of food and school supplies. I experience it when people pray and spend the evening putting up posters in my classroom. Or, when teachers give up their planning periods to assist in other classrooms. And I see it when neighborhood adults meet children at bus stops with breakfast and snacks.
As teachers go through the school year, with all of its challenges and joys, we need the promises of Jesus to carry us through. And we see glimpses of those promises through many of our everyday experiences.
We are promised his comfort and shelter. On the second day of school, children, teachers, and parents stand in a thunderstorm at the end of the day, scrambling to get kids home, many walking more than a mile. Many families do not get bussing due to district cuts years ago, and several bus stops are several blocks away. A pregnant mother of eight comes running and reaches for her children. I hand her an umbrella for the walk home. Teachers and students huddle together beneath the awning as they wait on parents. One of my fifth graders comforts his scared and sobbing 6-year-old brother because the storm is too loud.
We are promised his friendship. Former students contact me, and children give huge hugs in the hallways. “Jack” has such a profound speech disability that he is unable to say any consonants. We celebrate that he is in my class with his best friend “Blake.” Jack and Blake are so close that Blake translates for Jack when someone can’t understand him. Jack will call him over when I am struggling, and Blake listens closely and lovingly interprets what he is saying. They’ve pulled each other away from fights this week and never leave the other’s side. I’ve never seen two kids have such a truly sweet and mutual relationship. They choose to be with each other because they love and enjoy one another.
We are promised nurture. The siblings of a child who lived with us in the past are currently living with our dear pastor friend and his wife. I have prayed since these children were tiny that they would experience safety and security. The kids squeal in delight when we arrive at the bus stop. The 4-year-old runs up to my preschool daughter and says, “You coming with me.” After the big kids get on the bus, the small ones will go back to our friends’ house until pre-k starts. Goodbye hugs are given. I know our children are both seen and heard. They will be loved at school and in the home of the pastor’s family.
We are promised he will bear our burdens. A teacher resigns after four days of instruction. The needs and behaviors are “too much to bear.” It is not only the behaviors or the needs that are too much to bear. The grief alone is too much to bear. None of us are strong enough to handle it ourselves.
We are promised grace. A friend brings dinner on Friday. My husband and I are draped in fatigue and irritability. My mantra is “just get to bedtime.” I run upstairs to change clothes before taking my kids to play. I am half-clothed when my 3-year-old screams, alerting me that her little brother let the dog out. The neighbor meets me on my porch, and the dog follows her back, only to get away from us again two more times. She watches my kids while I grab my keys and put shoes on. The 2-year-old is crying. My neighbor says, “Sometimes motherhood is hard.”
We are promised that he sees. An adoptive mother of seven loses her new home and puppy to a house fire. She and the children are left with the clothes on their back. I met these sweet children several years ago when they were living with little food, shelter, transportation, and proper hygiene. The mother and father struggled with addiction, to the point of losing their children. The aunt, who is now their adoptive mother, moved across the country to keep the siblings together and care for her elderly mother. When I met them, it felt so meager to deliver a package of diapers, yet the Lord knew their needs. Currently, the family is living out of a hotel room. My friend cares for the three youngest, and several churches work together to gather supplies for them.
The promises continue.
Our teenage daughter, whose life is a testament to the miraculous promises of God, is invited to be a peer mentor for students who have experienced trauma, are on the spectrum, or have behavioral disabilities. “What an honor,” I say.
With an eye roll, and flat tone, she responds, “I just treat them like humans.”
I am reminded that it is Jesus who says we matter, and it is his people who affirm it. We are called to treat one another like humans made in God’s image — beautiful, created, seen, valued, and loved.
Jesus invites everyone to grab hold of his promises, and the Spirit fulfills these every day. He does not forget the orphan, widow, addicted, homeless, suffering, or wandering. He promises to meet us at the bus stops, in the food pantry, in pre-school, and in the suffering hearts of young people. He has not forgotten, and he will restore. I am forever thankful to rest on these promises.