Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mrs. Cunningham's Gift

Mrs. Cunningham gave me an awesome gift in second grade. Let me first explain to you why it was an awesome gift. To do that, I first need to introduce you to my grandfather, Papaw.

Papaw's father was a school teacher, actually I believe he became the first principal of the local high school.  Being a school teacher was high on the list of what a person should aspire to be.  He was the oldest living son, his brother Richard, having been killed in World War I. I know his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a teacher.  But Papaw had other desires.

Papaw was a farmer and a good one.  He farmed 530 acres of prime Missouri soil, much of which was creek bottom land.  He farmed with passion, science and business.  He loved the land.  He loved the animals.  Whether it was feeding the pigs, milking the cows, shearing the sheep or squirting milk in the kittens' mouths, it was pure joy to him.  Even spending long days on the tractor during planting or harvesting time brought him joy.

He was also scientific in the way he decided which field to plant in what crop, what kind of fertilizer and seed to use, when to plant, when to harvest.  His love of animals made him pretty close to being a vet.  He could give a shot, diagnose an illness or interpret animal behaviors knowing when to remove an animal from the herd and give them a break.

His business and accounting skills were admirable as well. He knew all about when to buy, when to sell, when to and how much to borrow and how to save to pay it back.  He was well respected in the farming community as an expert in financial matters. I say all this to let you know, he chose his vocation not because he wasn't intelligent but because he loved it.  All his life, though, I believe he struggled with the expectations of his family that he would be a teacher. 

He was also a bit of a jokester.  One of the things he would say to us girls was: "She may not be very p-r-e-t-t-y but she sure is s-m-a-r-t!" Those words resonated in my being as I'm not pretty enough so maybe I should try to be smart enough.  I don't think that is what my Papaw was trying to say to us.  I'm sure he was saying to not focus on the external beauty but focus on the internal.  My Papaw was an awesome man, one of the best, kindest, gentlest, most godly.  If he knew how as a child, I interpreted that saying he would be mortified.  It was probably because I looked up to him so much that I was much more sensitive to his words than I would normally have been with anyone else.

In any case, I wanted to be smart.  I didn't really feel I was smart.  I was average, maybe a B average student.  My grandparents would give me $1 for every E (or A) that I earned.  B's didn't earn anything. Only A's earned money because if you made an A, you were s-m-a-r-t.  In first grade, I struggled a bit.  I maybe earned on A. I mean first grade is the time you learn to read.  I hadn't been taught to read at home, so I had some catching up to do.  When I got into second grade, Mrs. Cunningham was a kind, encouraging, loving teacher.  Still, I didn't earn many A's. That is until the last grade card of the year.  Mrs. Cunningham gave me all A's!  It didn't matter to me that most of my friends also got all A's, I got all A's.  That meant enough money to add to my piggy bank to get the new bike! That meant I was s-m-a-r-t because I had already figured out I wasn't p-r-e-t-t-y.  Finally, I could smile when Papaw said that to all us girls.

Mrs. Cunningham's gift to me meant I was enough.  I was smart.  I was talented. Hey, maybe I was even enough to be a little pretty.  Hugging her good-bye, she said to me, as I think she said to every student, "You come back and see me every year. Bring your report card, so I see how great you do.  You can be or do anything you want to."  Wow, I walked out of that classroom feeling six-feet tall.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I was enough. And every year I was in West Boulevard school, I brought my grade card back to show her. And every year, she was elated no matter what the grade.

Perhaps today reflecting on this, I realize there are times in my life when I have allowed circumstances to overwhelm the "enough" part of me.  After all, there will always be someone prettier, smarter, richer, more caring than me.  There will be those who pretend to have more or be more.  There will be those who seem to be pretty near perfect.  Those people make me want to numb myself into non-feeling, because I can't compete, nor do I want to. Yet, their very presence pushes me out in the middle of the circle forcing me to be tongue-tied, lacking and vulnerable.

And yet, I think about that moment in my life in second grade when I felt enough for the first time in my life.  Mrs. Cunningham was a vision-giver.  She realized the most important gift she could give her students at the end of the year was a sense of "I am enough."  She truly believed that each of us, no matter where we were on the academic spectrum, were enough just like we were.

I can stand in the middle of that circle today and be tongue-tied, lacking and vulnerable.  It is OK.  I am enough because in my life, I have had many Mrs. Cunninghams.  In fact, it is my desire now to be a Mrs. Cunningham to others, my family, my friends.  She reached out and connected with me.  She encouraged me.  She gave me the courage to say the words and mean them from the depth of my soul:  I am enough!

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