Wednesday, January 8, 2014

RAK Backtrack: Liz's List.

If you recall way back to November, we visited my friend/Godsister-because-that-is-a-real-thing in Chicago and gave her the responsibility of distributing $600 where she saw fit. She told us a ton of heart wrenching stories when we visited and we knew she was the woman for the job. So, here is her first recap of how she spent some of the money. Get your tissues ready, folks.

First of all, I must begin this post by giving the maddest of all props to Ms. Meaghan for her incredibly prompt and comprehensive posting skills in ADDITION to her heart of abundant generosity, creativity, and thoughtfulness. It has been an obstacle beyond all to try to capture the small but magnificent acts that have been completed with the first half of the money that was gifted to me during the RAK-takes-Chicago episode. I had no idea how challenging it is to capture the grace, humility, gratitude, and joy that occur in these moments. It feels like an incredible injustice to not capture them properly, hence the severe delay on my part. Again, Meaghan, you’re amazing for keeping so up to date and detailed throughout this journey.

Spending such a generous gift has been much more difficult than I anticipated, but definitely not because of any shortage of opportunities for giving (quite the opposite, actually.)  Teaching in a high-school where the majority of students and their families are “working poor” exposes me to a near sea of worthwhile causes with a constant tide that seem to wash up on my door each day. It’s impossible to decide who is deserving of a gift and who isn’t. I found myself almost clinging to the money with a fear that if I placed it in the hands of one family, a more deserving family may present itself the next day. The circumstances that I was able to support, I knew very clearly that I couldn’t NOT act, which helped me to have some peace about the decision that I was making.

The first RAK I was able to complete with my gift was for a family of one of my freshmen. Mr. Leek (all names changed to protect the identities of students and their families) has been a challenge since the first day that he walked into our building. He is a brilliant young man with severe hyperactivity and emotional regulation challenges. He is in and out of the dean’s office for everything from being disrespectful to attempting to skip classes. Mr. Leek is also a fighter (and not the fist-and-cuffs and bodily contacts with others kind of fighter). He has overcome severe trauma including the death of his brother, extended periods of homelessness, and watching his mother battle a rare and very painful illness for the past four years.

Mr. Leek’s mother, Ms. Scrip, bravely faces the challenges presented by the disease of Scleroderma each day. For those of you (like me) who are unfamiliar with the disorder, Scleroderma is an autoimmune deficiency that causes the skin to tighten around the bone. When Ms. Scrip attempted to explain the condition to me, she openly offered for me to attempt to pinch her. “No really girl, just give it a try, you’ve got nothing to pinch,” she laughed. And she was right, her skin is so tightly wrapped to her bones there is absolutely zero excess skin. Her face and hands appeared to be badly burned, a result of the years of the progressive tightening. She informed me that less than one million people in the United States suffer from the disorder, and that as time goes on, it causes additional pain and also complications with her breathing, digestion, and organ function. Ms. Scrip has the most aggressive strain of the disease, which will likely limit her life expectancy. Her doctors are cautiously optimistic that Ms. Scrip will live to see Mr. Leek graduate from high school, but they suggest that it is not guaranteed, and her chances of seeing him graduate from college are even less still.

Throughout her battle, she has continued to maintain employment at a popular retail chain. She has been a model employee for 13 years, an impressive feat amongst her aggressive therapy and appointment schedule. She proudly informed me that she has been awarded “employee of the month” seven times and has only missed 4 days of work in her 13 years. (If, at this point, you may be feeling a little bit bad about any and every decision you’ve ever made to take off work, don’t worry- you aren’t alone.) Her no-nonsense, no complaining attitude has stuck with me and permeated every thought of self-pity that I’ve had since meeting her a couple of months ago. She truly is an inspiration.

Two months ago we joined around a conference table as a team with Ms. Scrip to discuss Mr. Leek’s declining behavior in class. During this meeting, Ms. Scrip tearfully and profusely began apologizing, revealing that some of the externalizing behavior was likely due to the fact that she didn’t have enough money to pay for Mr. Leek’s medication this month. Due to the fact that her condition is more directly life-threatening, she had made the “selfish” (her word, not mine) decision to pay for her medicine and leave Mr. Leek’s at the pharmacy. Even with insurance, the seven different medications come to a total of $130 a month. She just couldn’t make ends meet this month, and Mr. Leek’s medication was one of a number of other cuts.

Ironically, this meeting fell just three days before Meaghan and Dan strolled in with the gift to trump all gifts. In providing the incredibly generous sum of money for such situations,  they alleviated the sensation of helplessness that often sinks to the pits of my stomach, sitting like an anchor as I realized how I little I can do. Ms. Scrip instantly came to mind, and instead of the defeated sensation of not knowing what to do, I was overjoyed by the potential of actually meeting a physical need and giving her that dignity. For once, I could provide more than a listening ear or non-judgmental conversation; I could help fix the problem- if only for a month. This was a gift unlike any I have ever been given.

Ms. Scrip came into conferences to pick up Mr. Leek’s grades just a week after our initial meeting. I had asked our office staff to let her know that I had something that I would like for her to pick up. When she walked in, her first question was, “paperwork?” I smiled and handed her the envelope, encouraging her to open it when she asked about the contents. Her response was fantastic. (Sidenote: I can absolutely see how you can get used to this process Meaghan and Dan, thinking of her reaction still gives me goose bumps.) After peeling back the flap of the envelope, her face, already tight due to her conditioned, wrinkled as she burst into tears. “What is this Ms. Hart? Where did this come from?” Of course, I teared up as I explained it to her. “My God-Sister (a term she instantly knew, proving the validity…DAN) is on trip around the country committing random acts of kindness for deserving individuals. After hearing about your story, she gifted finances to be directed to you for this month’s medication.” I went on to describe to her that the gift was not charity, instead it was a small token of dignity that she had EARNED, and that every mom who works diligently to provide for her son deserves the right of being able to purchase his medication. She just kept repeating, “you don’t know what this means, you don’t know what this means.” We sat in silence together, both crying, both avoiding eye contact. I didn’t want to fill the space with patronizing or surface words, so I just sat with her in a rare moment of unscathed goodness. For a moment, I could tell that all we were thinking about was the fact that that good things still happen, and that good people do catch breaks. After a couple of minutes of silence, I could tell that she was searching for the right words to express her gratitude, a challenge I also know well, so I hugged her, told her that she was an inspiration and asked her to save the rest of her energy for her reaction to Mr. Leek’s grades (which she was DEFINITELY going to need… YIKES!)


In addition to Ms. Scrip’s small act of appreciation, Mr. Leek showed some of his own. He pulled me to the side in the hallway and rather suspiciously asked me, “Why’d you do that for my mom?” When I informed him that I didn’t do anything, but that it was instead the kindness of a stranger that was the mastermind and pocketbook of it all, he looked down at his feet with the same scrunched up face of his mother. He finally responded, “well, that was really nice of them, and it really helped us out, so can you thank them for me Ms. Hart?” He quickly followed his statement up with, “it’s so weird when people do such nice things for you, why does it feel so weird?” Spoken from a true teenage boy who DEFINITELY needed to know the kindness of strangers for more reason than one.

The second random act of kindness actually involves students other than my own. My boyfriend, Laird is also a special education teacher at a low-income high school near the Englewood community, on the south side of Chicago. We’ve had the privilege to spend considerable time with one another students, and there is really only one glaring difference between the groups; Laird is brave enough to endure the wrath of teenage girls each day while I am not yet strong enough to do so. Similar to the high school that I teach at, over 90% of his students qualify for free and reduced lunch, most are living in single parent or multi-generational families, some are in gangs, some travel great distance to get to a high school that they believe will provide them with a better education than their neighborhood school, etc.

It was an unusually warm (warm= 55 degrees) Sunday in early November when a torrential downpour (think Chicago-ish monsoon) hit our city. Laird and I were dropping one of my students off at home after church when we noticed a group of teenagers “drumming” (orchestrating impressively complex beats using a plastic bucket and drum sticks) on the side of the high way. There were six different young men in two groups of three performing for short periods of time at red lights and then going from car to car requesting payment in their flipped buckets. We actually caught the intersection when the light was green, but it was enough time for Laird to see the familiar face of one of his students. We both instantly agreed the conditions were unacceptable for any teen to be outside in, let alone a teen that we had a relationship with, and circled around.

On our second trip around, we pulled to the side and asked one of the boys whom we did not know to grab Laird’s student. When we asked why they were subjecting themselves to such elements for the measly pay we know drumming earns, his response was stoic, “we all need a buck man, we all just need a buck.” The faces of an issue I know all too well, the availability of jobs in the under resourced communities of Chicago that could be assumed by hard working teens is pretty atrocious. There aren’t very many super markets, babysitting is an unpaid responsibility, there are no fields to detassle corn, no ice cream shops, no lawns to mow, no retail chains to work for, and only a few large fast food chains find it worthwhile to plant a storefront in these dangerous streets.

I say this to speak to the fact that “drumming” is one of the only legal ways that many of our students can generate income for themselves and their families. My students tell me that on average they earn around $10 an hour on a great day, but have also come home with as little as $5 after three hours of performance. Not a lucrative industry, but the only option for some. Certainly, not enough money for six 16 year old boys to be risking their health.

While I couldn’t use all of our gift to make their day particularly financially productive, I did see it as an incredible opportunity for a warm lunch, a conversation, and enough cash to convince them to go home for the day. In our conversation with Lairds student, we asked him to ask his friends to join us at the KFC across the street for lunch on us. If there is one thing I have learned to be a universal truth about teenage boys, it is that they NEVER say no to a free meal, and these six young men further confirmed my very scientifically based hypothesis.

Getting them off the street and giving them a chance to dry off was just one success of the day. Getting their growing bodies full of something (unfortunately not THE most healthy food in the business, but hey…) was a second success. A conversation about who they are and how school is currently going was probably the biggest and most important “win” of the day. The trend that I instantly noticed with these six young men is one that I see across the hundreds of teens I have worked with. Someone not from the area might find the young men to have poor manners and to be even right disrespectful, but these young men absolutely cannot afford to instantly trust each person that they meet. This manifests through the dreadlock-looking hair that they grow over their eyes to avoid eye contact. It also shines in baggy clothes that hide their sinking posture and need to constantly be moving (as to not be a target.) Many of these students are the product of low-expectations and adults too exhausted to care about them or invest in them. These young men avoided eye contact with me initially, definitely suspicious of why I would make such a gesture. Within 5 minutes of dignity-giving conversation and encouragement to order as they preferred, they were new people. Laughing, referring to me as “mam,” thanking me profusely, wanting to know details about my life as well.

When I informed them that I wanted to pay them the wage of a “good day” (in addition to purchasing their lunch) on behalf of the RAK road trip, the other patrons in the restaurant might have interpreted their response to mean I started speaking a foreign language. They couldn’t comprehend the details. In fact, they made me recount them at least three times. “Wait a minute…” one young man attempted to clarify, “you mean to tell me they raised all this money to do nice things for people they don’t know?” “Sound a little crazy,” another guy chirped. The best response came from the youngest of the group, a sophomore at Laird’s high school named Vincent. Mid-meal, he walked over to an elderly woman struggling to get her rain jacket on. He quietly asked if he could take her jacket and help her into it. The most sincere appreciation washed over her face and she offered a little wink in his direction. He patiently held her jacket out and guided each of her frail limbs into a sleeve.

When Vincent came back to the table, I offered him an encouraging smile, not wanting to embarrass him by making a big deal of the gesture. When we were disposing of our trash I mentioned that the women he assisted really seemed to appreciate it. He just nodded with a smile a look that confirmed that the event had him thinking. He didn’t have to use words to communicate his motivation or thought process around committing that small deed. What a beautiful “ripple effect” of this process, being able to wonder what acts will be committed to honor or reciprocate the more intentional acts. Another young man confirmed that this process had him thinking, letting me know, “this kinda stuff should happen more often.” Yes, yes sir it should. 

Over lunch, the guys shared stories about each of their struggling academic endeavors in their current schools, their need to make a few dollars as there was no disposable income at their homes, as well as their hopes for their near and distant future. We snuck a couple bills into hands (by the way, the six had collectively earned $4 as a group so far that day) gave them hugs, and threatened to stay more involved in their academics via word of mouth at their various schools (only 2 of the young men attend where Laird teaches.)  And with that, “RAK, the Chicago Chapter” had completed its second task.

When I was able to reflect on the afternoon, I felt perhaps the most cliché sensation wash over me, and that was the sense that I was given more of the gift, or act of kindness, than that received by this group. It is an incredible privilege to share an afternoon and meal with someone who doesn’t expect anything from you, doesn’t need anything from you, and yet they still give you back double what you attempt to invest in them. These young men are brilliant, kind, hard-working and just plain fun. I hoped that they would take their small amount of money and enjoy being a kid for once, maybe take in a movie or go skating. For the record, I wouldn’t have been upset if they decided to “pay it forward either.” J

I also recognized a deeper hope in what they could have potentially taken away from the encounter, and this hope mirrored my own experience in this whole RAK process. (Please allow me to digress for a moment as I unpack this…) Working in an increased-risk, high poverty school is the most rewarding, inspiring, life-giving career I could have ever chosen. It is also often really, REALLY tough (although not nearly as tough as LIVING in an increased-risk community or family.) Some days I get really tired, and angry, and resentful, and on really bad days I wonder if anything that I’m doing matters or if anyone will ultimately benefit. I often feel defeated hearing about terrible act upon terrible act that targets innocent children. I feel like I’m fighting a beast equipped with might and tenacity that far out matches my meager-but-fierce love.

Truth be told, I was really tired when Meaghan and Dan rolled into town. I don’t even feel that I have a right to say that I ever feel “tired” at 26, when some adults have invested 30 years into this work, but I was.  I was tired, and every negative, defeated voice inside my head seemed to be chiming in as a powerful chorus on this particular day.  In their incredibly selfless and unexpected gift, Meaghan and Dan were able to restore me, to build me back up, and to remind me that there is beauty and goodness in every dark corner and in every broken moment. I truly felt like this gift said, “we see you, you are important, keep going!” They were able to confirm that I do the work that I do because along my journey many passionate and talented people have affirmed me and given me tools to believe in myself and others. My mother has always told me, “people can only give you what they have.” My stock pile of love to give was running a little low, and Dan and Meaghan gave so graciously and abundantly to me, that I was again able to give freely and passionately, committing great love to small tasks.

And this, THIS is what I hope for those young men- and for each of the other individuals touched by this gift (many of whom you will hear about at a later date because I have inadvertently already published my first novel in this drawn out post… so sorry!!) I hope that they heard us whisper, “We see you, you are important, keep going!” I hope they might know that they too have something irreplaceable and unique to give, that they have a small bit of fuel to commit a thoughtful or sacrificial act. That is the MOST beautiful part of this whole idea to me, to know that Meaghan and Dan are sneaking around with their near-hipster looks and beautiful smiles and depositing a little bit of life back into wounded hearts so that they know they can pass on this power. I’ve seen this so concretely, and this is GOOD.

To each of you that have provided the funds and support to power this idea through, I can’t thank you enough.  You’ve filled more than a couple empty tanks here on the South side of Chicago. J  I promise I’m saving the best stories for later, so stay tuned!

With gratitude,

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