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.


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.

10,000 Percent

Dear Little One,

You aren’t easy to teach.  You’re headstrong.  And opinionated.  And passionate.  And hilarious.  Nobody makes me laugh like you do.  I love you for all of those qualities.

Last week, when we were writing for the National Day on Writing, you gave me a peek at your softer side-a side you usually keep safely hidden.  We sat in the quiet of the library ruminating on this sentence stem:

I write because…

Other kids wrote about how fun writing is, how great it is to write with friends or how much joy they find in making up stories and writing the pictures.

Little one, your response brought tears to my eyes.

“I write because I like writing love notes to my big brother in the Navy.  He is 20 years old and I love him 10,000%!!!”

I hung all the responses in the hallway and when I showed your paper to your mom, she teared up and rested her head on my shoulder for a brief moment.

What I want to say to you, Little One, is that I love to teach writing because it births moments like that where love is spelled out so clearly in blocky first grade handwriting.  The other thing I want to say to you is that I hope you continue to be brave enough to give voice to that softer side of yourself, to let that meek voice speak as clearly as your voice that keeps me in stitches with laughter.  That still, small voice is just as important.

Loving you 10,000%,

Mrs. McCauley


Hello, dear friends.  Lord have mercy, it’s been a long time since I’ve been here with you and I’ve missed you.  The past few weeks have been filled with funerals, weddings and the beautiful frenzy known as Back to School.

Good, good things are happening and I’m dying to write about them and also to write more about my beloved Ugandan children.

But the thing that’s on my mind tonight as I stand tip-toe on the doorstep of a new school year is how ripe with possibility the new year always feels.

image courtesy of

Have you ever eaten a peach straight from the tree?  Yes?  Then you know the sensation of the flesh bursting with juice as it runs in warm rivulets down your chin, dripping onto your shirt.  That’s the kind of ripe I’m talking about, the kind of ripe that only comes after months of effort from the loins of trees, the kind of ripe that gets all over you.  The kind of ripe that is blissfully messy.

Year after year I find myself rippling with excitement on the eve of the first day of school.  I barely sleep and I’m all a-twitter the morning of the first day.  I never know what the first day might hold.  I could be peed on.  It’s happened before.  I could be puked on.  Also happened.  My shoulder could be damp with tears.  It’s happened, courtesy of students and parents.  I could also receive drawings and love notes scratched out in blocky phonics.  It happens every year.  I could get hugged so many times that my arms ache.  That happens every year, too.  It’s a blissfully messy day.

Tomorrow when my little ones settle on the carpet and look up at me with beaming, hopeful faces, I’ll be thinking of ripe peaches.  When I eat a peach, I don’t care about the mess or the stains on my shirt, I only care about the sweetness of the peach.  Tomorrow may hold some surprises-the first day always does-but what I know for sure is that the day will be ripe with sweetness.

Christmas Card in May

The envelope was plastered with stickers, frogs upon neon smiley faces upon bears upon princesses upon Power Rangers upon ladybugs upon shiny hearts.

There were so many stickers that I couldn’t open the flap and instead ended up easing the contents of the envelope out the bottom of the envelope.

What greeted me was a gingerbread man in a Santa hat.

Needless to say, this was a bit of a surprise being that it’s May.

It made me giggle as I remembered the time my family celebrated Christmas in December AND April because my brother couldn’t come home from boot camp in December.  We did Christmas twice. Christmas in April included a Christmas tree, stockings, piles of wrapped presents, all the Christmas decorations and even Christmas carols from our old radio.

Yes, we were THAT family.

But back to the gingerbread card.  Based on the sheer amount of stickers on the envelope, I knew a pair of little hands had gone through a lot of work to make this card and slip it into my in basket without me noticing.  I didn’t discover the card until after school when I sat down at my horseshoe table and began to sort through the pile of papers.

I opened the envelope and grinned at the gingerbread man smiling back at me.  My smile deepened as I read the inside.

*The student’s name has been blocked for privacy purposes.

I love this little one deep down in all the corners of my heart.  I thought back to Fall days with this little one when she barely spoke a word of English and could only write the names of the people in her family.  Every day she’d stare at me with wide black eyes, drinking in the words I spoke and gulping down the books I read.

She began to read and write on her own.  Her notebook became a sacred space of stories and poem and drawings, drawings so precise and so bold with color that her classmates would often gather around her in amazement as she commanded her crayons in ways they couldn’t imagine.

Her stories were always pictures first followed by words.  I told her she was an illustrator/author.  She once asked me if I was an illustrator/author, too, and I told her that my mind thinks in words and that it was a gift to have a brain like hers that created such beautiful pictures.

When I opened her card, I looked for the picture.  I looked in the sticker encrusted envelope for an additional folded up paper crayoned with her work.  To my surprise, there wasn’t a picture, just the happy gingerbread man and those precious few words.

I stood the gingerbread man up on my chair at the front of the classroom so that I’d be sure to thank her at our morning meeting the next day.  The next day came and she entered the classroom hanging up her backpack that was almost as big as she is.  She took down her chair, placed her things on her desk and walked to the front of the room.  She saw her gingerbread card on my chair and gave him a tiny wave before taking her place on the carpet.  During our morning meeting, I thanked her for the card and stood it on the shelf next to my chair.

When snack recess came around, she hung around the classroom until all the others had gone out to play.  She sidled up to me and slipped her head underneath my arm.

“I liked my card very much,”  I said, bending down to her level and giving her a squeeze.

“It’s for Teacher Appreciation Day,” she said, stumbling over the word appreciation until she got it right.  “It’s the Gingerbread Baby,” she smiled.

“Oh, that’s one of my favorite books,” I winked at her.

“I know.  It’s my favorite book, too,” she said in her small voice.  I knew she loved that book because Gingerbread Baby had spent the better part of winter in her book box.

“I love the verbs Jan Brett uses in that book, don’t you?”

She nodded.  “But the best thing is the pictures she drew on the sides.”

“I can see why that would be your favorite part.  In fact I’m a little surprised that you didn’t draw a picture in the gingerbread man card..”

“Your brain thinks in words.”

I laughed, remembering our conversation from so many months ago.  “You’re right, it absolutely does.”

“It’s okay, Mrs. McCauley, a word brain is another kind of gift.”  She patted my head and bounced out to recess.

Teacher Appreciation Week came and went and I was appreciated with special lunches, gift cards and flowers.  But the gift that stands out most is the Christmas card, that gingerbread man penciled in with words from my little one, a thoughtful little girl who understands the beauty of minds that work differently and hearts that love the same.