Bromleigh asked me to write a reflection for church last week as they reflect on their core values. My assignment was to consider the statement, “We love children and youth…and we help them grow with personal, curious, generous, and socially engaged Christian faith.”
Here is what I wrote (and read to the congregation:)
Hello. I am a middle school math teacher. As a teacher, I’ve heard my share of inspirational teaching stories. And perhaps you, too, have heard some yourself. If you are a Facebook user, then you’ve undoubtedly encountered the apocryphal tale of Teddy Stoddard. For those of you who haven’t, I’ll give you a brief summary.
Teddy Stoddard was a 5th grader in Mrs. Thompson’s class. And he was hard to love. He slept in class and didn’t play well with other children. He was messy and in need of a bath. His grades were bad and he could be unpleasant.
Mrs. Thompson, so the story goes, began to delight in marking big red F’s on his papers until she reviewed his records. His 1st grade teacher said he was a joy to be around. His 2nd grade teacher noted that while he was an excellent student, he was troubled by his mother’s terminal illness. Do you see where this is going?
His 3rd grade teacher commented that his mother’s death was hard on him, but he was still doing his best despite having an uninterested father at home.
In fourth grade he was withdrawn and had no friends.
Now he was in the charge of Mrs. Thompson. On Christmas, he gave her a clumsily wrapped present. There was a rhinestone bracelet with missing stones and a half empty bottle of perfume. It was then and there she decided to take an interest in Teddy.
When she wore the perfume and bracelet, Teddy told her she smelled just like his mother used to.
Mrs. Thompson worked with him, and the more she worked, the more he responded, until he was the best student in her class.
Each year after 5th grade, he would leave her a note telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had. He graduated high school third in his class. He graduated college with honors.
He went further, and his name became Theodore F. Stoddard, MD. He invited Mrs. Thompson to his wedding and she sat in the place normally reserved for the mother of the groom. She wore the bracelet and perfume.
This story is often shared as though it were true, but in fact it is a work of fiction that was written in 1974 by Elizabeth Silance Ballard titled Three Letters from Teddy. In her writing, the boy’s name was Teddy Stallard.
But just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true. What is it about this story that touches so many of us, touches us enough to share it on Facebook millions of times?
I think it speaks to something that is true – that we adults can have a profound influence on the lives of children. There have certainly been teachers who have changed the trajectory of a child’s life. Perhaps we have had one ourselves.
But there are certain things about this story that bother me. Teddy Stoddard doesn’t exist, and I don’t think Teddy Stoddard should exist. No child should be lacking in food, clothing, or access to hygiene. No child should lack for love.
And yet, when I worked in Chicago Public Schools at 6543 S. Champlain Avenue, I encountered many, many Teddy Stoddards. One girl smelled like urine every day because she had to sleep with her bed-wetter sibling. One boy yowled in pain when another student gave him a friendly pat on the back, because he was often beaten by his mother. And a great deal of my students were hungry.
It’s heartbreaking. It’s systemic. No matter how many gains you make with a child, he will be replaced by a new, somehow needier kid.
The story of Teddy Stoddard, this story that brings tears to our eyes, is predicated on the dumb luck that Teddy happened to encounter a teacher that cared enough to see him through his difficult times. Is that really the system we have in place for our neediest children? Good luck with poverty and hunger. Hopefully you’ll get an inspirational teacher who will help you turn your life around.
I couldn’t remember the exact address of my CPS school, so I went to their website. The first thing I saw in the “Upcoming Events” section was an announcement for no school, thanks to a furlough day.
Do you know what that means? That means many children won’t eat that day.
Children won’t eat. In America. In a “liberal” northern city.
How do we permit this?
After my first couple of years teaching on the south side, I came to be seen as reliable. I didn’t get as much pushback from students when I asked them to think, to try, to learn. They knew I would be there the next day. And the day after that. Many teachers in the system struggled to make it past Thanksgiving. I don’t necessarily blame them. The anti-teacher sentiment that emerged during the Great Recession is even more virulent in urban school districts – teachers are fired at will because they didn’t discover a cure for poverty.
I began teaching classes on Saturday mornings to help students prepare for standardized testing. In suburban districts we have the luxury of saying that standardized tests are meaningless because we don’t need state funding. If too many students fail in CPS the school gets closed.
I had nearly 100 percent attendance for my Saturday classes. Do you know how I achieved this?
I fed them.
If you came to school on Saturday, you got breakfast. Totally worth it for a two-hour review session.
We love children and youth…and we help them grow with personal, curious, generous, and socially engaged Christian faith.
Sadly, children literally cannot grow if we don’t feed them. A child isn’t usually that curious about the quadratic formula if he’s afraid his father is going to be deported. How do we help them? There are so many of them in need. It is overwhelming.
We can start by taking a lesson from Mrs. Thompson, the fictional hero of Teddy Stoddard’s tale. We can remember that our actions can and do make a profound difference in the lives of children. Maybe we can’t solve poverty today. But we can try not to raise our voices to our own children. We can volunteer. We can teach Sunday School! We can vote for representatives that have policy proposals to combat childhood poverty.
And we can build from there, until a child’s opportunities are not determined by her zip code. Until we have excellent schools for all children. Until no child in America goes to bed hungry.