Love at the Door

It was one of those days. The broken air conditioner had blown hot air at us all day. The stuffy classroom put all twenty-five first graders and me in a cranky mood.

Everybody was peeved.

Everybody was in everyone else’s space.

It felt like every syllable of every word was a tattle. “He looked at me funny.” “Her shoe is touching my space on the carpet.” “He’s breathing too loud.”

I wish I were making those up, but, fellow teachers, you know I’m not.

We made it through the day. By the skin of our sweaty teeth. But we made it.

After school an unexpected cart of new computers was delivered, a delightful surprise, except for the fact that the charging cart they’re required to be stored in is roughly the size of China. Since I was going to be out the following day, I knew I had to rearrange my room, lest the natural disaster called Leaving My Class With A Sub should strike and sweep the new computers up in its funnel.

So in the sweltering heat of my classroom, I lifted and grunted three dinosaur computers out of my room. The dust bunnies that had gathered behind the computers scampered away. I heaved the now empty table out and rolled the new computer cart into place, plugging it securely into the outlet, which is when the breaker box decided it, too, had simply had enough of this day. Every machine in my room went silent.

I stood in the silence and the heat, shaking my head. The clock was minutes away from 6pm. I was hot and tired and hungry. I wondered what else could go wrong.

You’d think I’d know by now not to ask that question.

After I’d located a custodian, who unlocked the breaker box and flicked the switch, I readied my room for the substitute. As I took a final look around my classroom, I heard what can only be described as a sizzling sound emanating from the outlet near the Books on CD station.

Sizzling sounds in the classroom are never, ever good.

The sizzling sound came from batteries recharging in the charger. I pulled the sizzling charger out of the outlet, threw the culprit batteries in the battery recycling container, and wiped away the battery acid magma that had oozed onto the table.

I slung my purse over my shoulder and glanced at the clock.  5:57pm.  I’d been at work 11 hours. Lunch felt like it was decades ago.

As I closed the door on the day, I had a fleeting wish that I was back in my Ugandan classroom. I had pangs of longing for the simplicity of teaching in an open air classroom under a thatch roof, where the only tools were a blackboard, me, and my students.

I stepped into the shared space outside of my classroom and nodded in solidarity at the handful of daycare kids who, like me, had been at school for 11 hours. Poor kids. Poor daycare teachers.

One little boy sat coloring at the round table just outside my door. I hadn’t seen him before.  I know I would’ve remembered him because his skin was the rich coffee bean color of my Ugandan sons. I paused to look at his picture.  His nametag sat like a tent on the table and the sight of his name stopped me in my tracks.


His nametag read Amari.

Amari is the Lwo word for, “I love you.” It’s the phrase my Ugandan sons use when signing messages to me. It’s what we say to each other with our hearts in our throats when I leave Uganda and return home every summer.


At 5:58pm, here it was, waiting for me at my classroom door.



I tend to forget the remarkable measures God takes to make me know that He sees me.  On days when I’m cooked and in the dark and hungry and any semblance of energy I once had has long ago left the building, He sees me.

I wish I were one of those people who picks up on God’s more subtle messages. I’m not. I probably never will be and that’s okay because the better news is that on days like that when I am, at best, a worn out thread of myself, God takes extraordinary measures to make sure I know that I’m loved.

Dear One, maybe you needed that gentle reminder today, too.  On days when it’s all you can to do to put one foot in front of the other to wade through the wreckage, God sees and loves you.

Amari indeed.

The Perfect Gift

image courtesy of flickr

Today as I walked across the playground to my car, carrying a big box of treasures my little ones and their families had bestowed on me, I stared up at the pale sky and grinned at small miracles, like the joy of outside recess for the first time in weeks.

As I crossed the playground past wallball courts, one of my little boys, who stays for after school care, came tearing across the blacktop, running full speed and only stopping when his arms were tightly wrapped around my legs, like it had been years since we’d seen each other, instead of the short side of half an hour.

I adore this kid.  He’s helpful and kind, smart and hilarious.  He excels in making armpit noises.  He’s everything a kid should be.

Earlier in the week, he’d strutted into class and during the “Good News” portion of our Class Morning Meeting he’d showed off his new, fast shoes.

He lamented, “But, Mrs. McCauley, it’s been raining forever and I’m never going to get to show you my fast shoes during P.E.  All I want to do is run and play.”  He rested his head on my shoulder.

“Buddy, I’m with you.  All I want is for you to be able to run and play.  Believe me,” I said with utter sincerity.  Sweet teacher friends, you know the desperation that arises after days on end of rain and no recess.  It’s a visceral need akin to thirst or hunger.

As I balanced my box and he hugged my legs, he looked up at me and grinned, the windowed smile that is the hallmark of first grade.  This kid has freckles for days, smattered across his nose and cheeks.

“Have a merry Christmas,” I leaned into him.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. McCauley.  I’m going to miss you.”

For many of my little ones, the last day before Christmas break is a difficult day.  Being away from school, from friends, from teachers and librarians and aides and cooks and custodians who love them so much is hard.   This little one has a family who loves him, a warm house, food on the table, but still it’s hard.  Two weeks is an eternity to a kid.

“I’m going to miss you, too, but I’ll see you after vacation.  And then we’ll tell each other all about the things we did,”  I assure him.

I felt him nodding his head against my leg.  He peeled away from me and walked a few steps before turning back toward me.  He swallowed hard.

“I love you, Mrs. McCauley.”

He waited for me to say it back.  I always do.  I tell my kids all of the time, but still never enough, that I love them.

“I love you, too, buddy,”  I smiled.

He gave a last wave and ran toward the swings.  I watched his fast shoes splash through the puddles.

At home, I unpacked all of my gifts, filling two notepad pages with names and items for one of these lazy vacation mornings when I’ll sit in my pajamas with a cup of tea and pen thank you notes.

As I sat under the light of my Christmas tree, I smiled because I knew I’d received a gift too big to be listed in a notebook, a gift so perfect that I’ll be grateful for it long after I’ve penned my thanks for all the other kindnesses I received today.


Vigilante Acts of Kindness: School Supplies

I’ve always loved school shopping.  Is there anything more beautiful than a brand new box of Crayola crayons?  Don’t even get me started on the perfection that is the big box with the built-in sharpener in the back.  And can we talk for a minute about Trapper Keepers, the hands-down best binder ever created?  My favorite one had wild horses on the front.  Yes, I was that nerdy girl who played pretend horses at recess.

As a teacher, one of the best things about a new school year is buying fresh, new supplies.  Rectangular, lined Sticky Notes and Sharpies, unblemished by little hands still sticky from the peanut butter and jelly sandwich from lunch, are my go to staples for starting a new year off right.  All is right with the world when I have a bouquet of Sharpies and a pad of sticky notes on hand.

This year school shopping looked a little different for me.  I made all of my preparations for the coming year in May.  I ordered my supplies and put them all away, so tidy on my shelves, and then I locked my door and left for Uganda.

The calendar flipped to August and you, dear teacher friends, started posting pictures of your school supply finds, carts of crayons and folders and glue sticks.  Be still my heart, I love those purple glue sticks.  Seeing your school supply deals filling up my Facebook feed made me feel, well, left out.

So I took my friend and fellow teacher, Mr. Martin, school shopping.  You remember Mr. Martin.  He’s the same guy who when asked what he needed for his classroom last year had a list of only one thing: string.  And he used the string beautifully to hang posters and word walls and all sorts of learning materials that made all the walls of his classroom learning spaces.

This year there are now three primary teachers and their classrooms are still desperately bereft of basic materials like books, shelves, clocks, pencils, paper, and almost everything else.  Fellow teachers, I know you can relate to the continual challenge of teaching on a shoestring budget and making due without the materials you need.

So I asked the primary teachers to get together and make a list of the supplies they needed.  This time the list was significantly longer and I was thrilled.  In the good company of Martin and the principal, J.B., we hit the bookshop in Gulu hard.  That’s right, the principal went school shopping with us, too.  They checked things off their list and a pile of supplies grew in the store and suddenly I didn’t feel so left out.

I didn’t buy anything, save for one item.  There was a kid in need of a mattress.  He didn’t have one and his family couldn’t provide one.  As we shoved the mattress in the back of the car we’d rented to haul our plunder, I thought of the kid last year who needed a mattress and how out of his need and out of the generosity of my friends and family, Vigilante Kindness was born.

This year a pocket full of Vigilante Kindness shillings has stocked the primary classrooms  and given another kid a bed to sleep on.  I don’t have pictures of carts full Sharpies and Crayolas and sticky notes to post.  Instead here’s a shot of Mr. Martin, and his school supplies.

Dearest teacher friends, I’m with you half a world away as you prepare for a new year.  I’m with you as you organize your rooms and fill them with things shiny and new.  I’m with you as you create warm, stable environments for kids who don’t have beds to sleep in or homes that provide them a soft place to rest.  Thanks for making a space for them in your classrooms and in your hearts.  Now go and buy yourself some new Sharpies because you’re about to make a big mark in this world.

The Itty Bitty Airball Queen

Friday was our school wide reading program finale.  The finale was a series of races and games.  There were jump rope relays, basketball relays, soccer relays, minute to win it games, hula hoop contests, scoot board races and a host of other challenges for my little ones to participate in.  It was a scream!  There were times when I was doubled over, laughing so hard that I was crying.  Balls were escaping, jump ropes were tangling, and all the while the first graders were clapping and cheering with abandon.

One of the harder games was a basketball shooting game.  Each kid stood at a line in the middle of the key and shot five baskets.  This is a supremely hard task for first graders.  That basket might as well be in the clouds.  One of my darling little girls-a teeny, tiny breath of a kid-was chosen for this game.  
She’s an adorable kid.  When she gets excited about something, her blue eyes open wide and she flaps her arms.  I’ve seen her do this when reading her favorite books, when mastering particularly difficult math problems, when playing at recess and especially when she paints.
She stood at the line, basketball in hand, with a serious expression on her face.  She shot.  Air ball.  She scrunched up her face in concentration and shot again.  Air ball.  Her third and fourth shots arched through the air and again fell short.  
I bet you’re thinking this is going to be one of those stories where she makes the fifth shot and does a victory lap around the gymnasium.
It’s not.
Not one of her five shots even came close to grazing the net.  
Not a single one.
Back in the classroom after the reading program finale, we were gathered at the carpet talking about all the fun we had racing and cheering each other on.
My tiny airballer raised her hand to share.  “Mrs. McCauley, I was nervous about that basketball game because I’ve never played it before.”
She paused and I waited, scripting in my mind words of encouragement or some sage advice about perseverance or something, anything to ease the sting.
Then she continued, the pitch of her voice rising to an exuberant squeal, her arms flapping in wild excitement, “I was nervous at first, but then I played the game and I was AWESOME at it!!!”
Wait, what?  
She explained, “I’ve never thrown a ball that high before.  I threw it really high five times.”  She held up five fingers. 
My face broke into a huge grin, mirroring the smile on her own precious face.
What an idiot I am for thinking I needed to pepper her with my “sage advice”.  As is so often the case, I found myself marveling at the unconventional wisdom my students. 
I’m so hard on myself when it comes to trying new things, so fearful and bound in nerves, so unwilling to try, lest I fail, or worse yet lest I fail in public.
The next time I’m facing a new challenge, I’m going to remember her face, scrunched up by every ounce of her concentration.  I’m going to remember her candor in admitting she was nervous and afraid.  But most of all I’m going to remember her wild, flapping arms and the triumph on her face for throwing the basketball higher than she ever has before.
She didn’t make any baskets that day, and for that I’m grateful because if she had, I would’ve missed the lesson.  She didn’t score any points, but one thing is for sure, my itty bitty airball queen is winning.

He Used To

My heart is heavy tonight.  Within the last month, two of my former students have lost their fathers.  There is no grief so searing as a little girl losing her father too soon.  The latest loss leaves me hollowed out.  This father was a great man, the kind of man who all the children gravitated to because of his gentle way.

I am locked in grief.  For his wife.  For his son.  For his darling daughter.  For everyone who knew him.  It is a piercing loss and all I can do is blink back tears and write.

He Used To
He used to walk her to class each morning,
Hug her tight,
Kiss her freckled nose with kindness.

He used to smile at her,
The corners of his eyes crinkled with happiness,
Her eyes mirrors of his youth.

He used to adjust her helmet strap,
Remind her to hold on tight,
All at once holding onto his little girl,
All at once letting her go.

He used to be able to kick free from the deep,
To push toward light,
Toward air,
Toward truth,
Toward life.

He used to look into her adoring eyes,
Know her love was real,
Know he was worthy of being loved.

Then he stopped knowing
Her freckles,
How to hold on tight,
How to kick to the surface,
How to quell the lies with truth,
That he was worthy,
That he was loved,
That love was real.

I used to know that man.
Now there is only his freckled girl and the
Beautifully raw memories of
Who he used to be.

image courtesy of


Crumpled Wings

The dragonfly nymph had been climbing up and down a willow branch all day inside one of our classroom habitats. My little ones watched him climb, excitedly announcing to the class his every move and clapping with glee because they knew that this was a sign that the nymph was getting ready to make its final climb out of the water where it would crack out of its skin and become the shimmering flyer it was meant to be.

Dragonflies make this final climb in the sheath of night, cloaked from predators when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state-when it cannot yet take flight, nor can it retreat back into the water.

We left school that day knowing that an adult dragonfly would likely be waiting for us the next morning.

When morning arrived and I pulled my bike up to my classroom door, I couldn’t help but laugh at the line of little ones who had their faces pressed up against our windows.  They were peering in, looking for our dragonfly and when I unlocked the door and let the little ones in, our outside windows were left with a row of fingerprint and nose smudges that made me giggle.

New dragonflies seek the light and we’d found all of our previous dragonflies patiently waiting in our windowsills.

We looked in the windowsills.

No dragonfly.

We looked in the habitat and, sure enough, attached to the willow branch was the ghostly exuvia, with a hole where the dragonfly had broken out of its skin.

Then we saw it.

The dragonfly was on its back beside the tank.  Two of its wings were fully formed.  Two of its wings were crumpled and stuck to the desk.

In the cover of night, something had gone terribly wrong.  The dragonfly had fallen from the willow branch before its wings were set and as the wings dried, they dried stuck to the desk.

“I think he’s dead, Mrs. McCauley,” one of my little ones said solemnly.

“Maybe.  Let me see.”  I put my finger to the dragonfly’s legs and he grabbed on, but his wings remained plastered to the desk.

It was at this moment that another one of my little ones entered the room.  She’s a gymnast, a high-flying daredevil of a kid who flips around the bars like walking is her second language and flying is her native tongue.

The gymnast broke her elbow when she took a fall in gymnastics class.  She wore a bright green cast on her arm.

She crowded around the dragonfly with us and when I explained what had happened she simply said, “He’s like me.  What are you going to do, Mrs. McCauley?”

I didn’t know.  I stood there for a minute watching the dragonfly struggle to free his wings from the desk.  I watched my little ones watching the dragonfly.

“You have to do something,” said the gymnast.

“I know.  I’m just trying to think of what.  I’ve never seen a dragonfly with injured wings like this, so I’m not quite sure how to help.  Let me think.”

“Shhhh, everybody, shhhh.  Mrs. McCauley has to think so she can save him,” a little boy said with his finger to his lips.  A hush fell over them and the pressure was on.

“Go get me a damp paper towel and I’m going to try re-wetting his wings.”  I sent one of my little ones to the sink and she hurried back with a soggy paper towel.

The dragonfly beat his two strong wings against me as I wet his crumpled wings, which began to release from the desk.

“It’s okay, little dragonfly, Mrs. McCauley isn’t going to hurt you.  She doesn’t even let us kill spiders,” a little boy said reassuringly.

I sponged the dragonfly off the desk and he crawled onto my finger, trying in vain to pump fluids into his crumpled wings.  The wings shivered, but remained deformed.

“We’d better keep him for a while and see if he can get his wings to straighten out.”  I slipped him into the wire cage we keep our new dragonflies in before we transfer them to the creek.

Later that morning we had another dragonfly emerge from its skin.

“My dad says that sometimes when animals are hurt or sick, putting them with a healthy animal helps them heal,” one of my little girls said.  “Let’s put them together in the cage and see if that helps the wrinkled one.”

We put the pair of dragonflies together in the releasing cage.  The healthy dragonfly flitted and buzzed around while the other one sat watching.  We passed the cage around so each child could see what was happening.

“He looks sad,” many little ones lamented.

“What’s that word you were telling us about yesterday, Mrs. McCauley?” the gymnast asked.

“Which word?”

“The one about summer, how it’s sad that school is ending, but happy that summer is beginning.”


“I think the dragonfly is feeling bittersweet-happy that his friend can fly, but sad that he can’t yet.  Kinda like how I feel watching my friends play on the bars at recess.”

“That makes sense to me.”

We kept the pair of dragonflies in our classroom most of the day, but as the end of the day drew near we knew we had to release them or they would starve.

We hiked out to the creek with our pair of dragonflies.  A little boy gently stuck his finger under the dragonfly with fully formed wings.  He lifted his hand into the air and the dragonfly took flight, zipping to the creek.

The other dragonfly had yet to fly at all, not even flutter from one side of the cage to the other.

“Maybe if we hold him up in the air, he’ll fly,” another little boy suggested.  “Maybe when he feels the air on his wings, he’ll know what to do.”

“It’s definitely worth a try,” I agreed.  The little boy lifted the dragonfly on his finger and into the air.

We waited.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, that the dragonfly with crumpled wings took flight and soared into the sky.

It didn’t.

It was a Green Darner and we placed it on a green branch near the creek where we hoped it could camouflage from predators long enough to get its wings working.

On the day my little gymnast got her cast off, her dad offered to take her out for ice cream afterwards.  She asked if she could go to school instead because she didn’t want to miss a thing.  Her dad just shook his head and drove her to school, reminding her she can’t go on the bars just yet.  I have a feeling that the gymnast will be back to her high-flying ways in no time, but she’s right there’s bittersweetness in watching her friends flip on the bars while she sits on the sidelines and watches.

There’s a bittersweet feeling to the end of the school year.

As the year draws to a close, I think often of the crumpled dragonfly and of my little ones who I’m going to have to let go of so very soon.

Most of them are absolutely soaring.  Reading 100 words a minute, writing amazing stories, even tackling multiplication.

But a handful of my little ones came to me broken, with badly crumpled wings.  Each morning, they’d beat against me because letting anyone close when they were in such a vulnerable state was terrifying.

So often I didn’t know what to do, how to fix such acute breaks of the heart.  So often I found myself needing a moment to watch them and think of a new ways to try to help them.  For some it was enough and they eventually found their wings.

Others remain too scarred.  On the last day I’ll hug them a final time and hope that someday when they feel the air on their wings, they’ll find it within themselves to take flight.

Dreaming of Africa

It’s been an incredibly sad and somewhat scary week to be a teacher.  I haven’t been sleeping very much this week, three to four hours a night at the most.

Last night I slept soundly and dreamed that I returned to Uganda.  Uganda has been on my heart so much lately.  In truth Uganda and my children there have been on my heart since I stepped foot on the plane back to California last July.

I miss my beautiful Ugandan sons with such acuteness that often it’s a physical ache in my heart.

In my dream I was on an airplane descending through the clouds.  When the clouds cleared, I looked out my window and Uganda was spread out beneath me.  But the landscape wasn’t trees and dirt, it was a painting alive with color.  Blues and oranges and greens purples and pinks all teeming with life.

I recognized the artist of the painted land out my airplane window right away.  Somehow Tricia Kibler, the amazing artist who comes and teaches my little ones (including her son) art lessons every month, had managed to paint the whole of Africa.  I love that things like that seem completely ordinary in dreams.

The splendor of the painted landscape took my breath away and in my dream I began to cry.

My alarm clock woke me and I was surprised to find myself wiping real tears from my eyes.  I stood at my bedroom window watching the snow fall, the white world a transfixing juxtaposition to the vibrant Africa of my dream.

I sent Tricia a message telling her about my dream.

Last night I had a...

Little did I know that just minutes before I’d messaged her, she’d begun to dream up a painting of Africa for me.

This afternoon she brought me a Christmas present and when I unwrapped the painting, I cried for Africa for the second time in the day, this time not just for the beauty of my dream, but for the very real ways God sends assurance that I will return.  As Christmas draws near, I’m especially grateful to love a God who speaks to my broken places in such tangible ways.

Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler
Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler