What More Can I Do?

Before I was a writer, I was a teacher.

One of my most memorable students was named Ahmed.

I didn’t know much about Ahmed when he first came to me. I knew he was an eighth grader, that he had recently moved with his family from Rwanda. I knew his spoken English was proficient, but if he didn’t catch up with his reading and writing he was in danger of not moving on to high school.

Over time I learned a few more things about him. I learned he loved basketball, and couldn’t sit still for more than two minutes. I learned he had a boisterous personality, and was never afraid to say what was on his mind.

I learned he had an opinion about everything.

These are the things teachers learn about their students the things that lead us to respond to certain students in certain ways.

So although I started my teaching career with all kinds of ideals about being a teacher who didn’t marginalize kids or judge them and who always expected the best and called them to their highest selves —

When it came time to put those ideas into practice, like with Ahmed, I found it more difficult than I expected.

I found myself saying the same things to Ahmed, over and over again.

“Ahmed, why are you out of your seat?”

“Ahmed, where’s your backpack?”

“Ahmed, are you even listening to me?”

Before long I had resigned to the assumption that Ahmed could never, and probably would never, learn to read and write well enough to graduate high school. I wished I could do something to help him, but I had done everything I could.

Then one day while I was in the middle of a thrilling lecture about the correct use of exclamation points, Ahmed interrupted me mid-sentence.

“Why’s you so lonely, miss?”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“You’s so lonely all the time. How come?”

I stood shocked, on my little teacher’s pedestal at the front of the room, and without a word, continued the lecture, but Ahmed wasn’t phased. He raised his hand, as I had taught him (numerous times) to do when he had a question.

“Do you have a question, Ahmed?” I asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Is it about exclamation points?”

“No ma’am.” (at least he was honest)

I asked him to wait until after class, assuming that would deter him. But it didn’t. In fact, he came to my desk, even more intense than before. “Why’s you so lonely, miss?” He asked, looking across my desk. I shuffled papers back and forth as I talked, trying to explain how I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Eventually, at my insistence, he meandered to his next class, leaving me alone for the next forty-five minutes — my prep period.

As soon as the door closed behind him, I cried.

I cried because he was right, and he was the only one who had seen. I cried because, as far as I could tell, I had convinced everyone else I wasn’t lonely — and this kid, this stupid twelve year old kid who drove me crazy — was the only one who had seen through my smokescreen.

A few months later, during parent-teacher conferences, I learned there was more to Ahmed than just a larger-than-life personality and a love for basketball. I learned his parents had been killed in the Rwandan genocide, and his aunt and uncle had fled to the United States and brought him with them.

I learned his uncle was a well-meaning, hard-working man, who was now acting as his father, and who barely spoke English himself.

I learned he was hard on Ahmed (yelled at him in front of me) for not getting better grades, and for disrespecting his teachers.

I watched tears well up in Ahmed’s eyes, feelings of failure overwhelming him. This sweet, simple, twelve-year-old kid tried to hold it together. And while I watched him fight back tears of loss and pain, my heart softened. I thought of the day he told me I was lonely. He saw me that day, and now, I saw him, too.

After that, things changed with Ahmed and me.

Things change when we see each other.

Where I used to think I had “done everything I could,” I started to see more ways I could help. I would stay late, come early, soften my tone, and even lie awake at night wondering what else I could do to be a better teacher to him.

Something powerful happens when we see each other. We move beyond thinking we’ve “done everything we can” and start exploring what it means to offer our whole selves to someone, to suffer with them, and to let them suffer with us.

We start seeing how we’re more similar to them than we are different.

I don’t know where Ahmed is today. The year I taught him was the last year I taught before I quit my job to go on a 50 State road trip.

But I will never forget what he taught me, that the ability to see people is no small deal, and that sometimes those of us who are best at seeing others are those of us without much to speak of. And sometimes the rest of us, as well-intentioned as we are, get our vision blocked with all of our stuff — our privilege and degrees and education.

This year I’m turning 30 on May 30th and instead of a big party or presents, I’m raising $30,000 to build a classroom in Uganda.

It’s more money than I have and it feels like a bigger project than I can handle. But I’m tired of pretending like I’ve done “everything I can do” to see people who would otherwise be lost, forgotten.

I’m throwing my whole self into it, giving a little more than feels comfortable.

And thanks to Ahmed, maybe students just like him a half a world away will feel seen, valued and loved, too.

Has there been a time someone unexpected has shed light on issues in your life? How did it impact you?

[Photo:  John Steven Fernandez, Creative Commons]

  • Jennifer Morgan

    Jamie, amber, Mariyah..all students that have challenged me at some point in my career. I learned the most from them. I saw this quote somewhere “love me the most when I least deserve it. Because that’s when I need it the most.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Great quote, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing!

  • Susan

    “He saw me that day, and now, I saw him, too.” Such a beautiful moment in your story! (Don’t know if that’s proper use of an exclamation point.)

    I believe Ahmed was able to see you and your loneliness because of the trauma that he experienced.

    Children who experience abuse or trauma develop a “gift” for seeing others. It is this gift (a heightened awareness of reading emotions in others) that helps them survive. Alice Miller talks about this in her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.”

    There have been many times in my life when people have helped me see myself. One that comes to mind was I was 22 and fighting for custody of my daughter. I went to my parents to ask them to be character witnesses for me but they refused. Despondent and feeling very alone in my struggle, I didn’t know if I had it in me to continue to fight. My co-worker, a woman who I barely knew, said to me, “Susan, you are like an orchid. Right now you’re feeling vulnerable like the orchid’s flower. But deep inside you are strong like the orchid’s leaves and stem. You can do this.”

    I hope one day you will share the story of why you were lonely and what happened in your life to change that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Susan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and part of your story. I had never thought about how an abused child has a heightened sense of awareness, but that makes sense. I’m adding that book to my “to read” list.

    • hurtingheart

      Lord help me to use the abuse trauma I’ve been through to “see” others

  • Ruthie Dean

    Love this story, Ally. Beautifully written. Definitely need to think about relationships in my life where “I’ve done everything I can”. Maybe I haven’t.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Thanks so much Ruthie. Going beyond doing “everything we can” involves suffering, unfortunately, suffering with people who probably don’t deserve it. But then again so many people have suffered along with me, when I didn’t deserve it either.

  • Theresa

    Oh that’s beautiful Alley…just beautiful. Everyone wants to be seen, valued and loved…Oh how we all need to embrace that! Vulnerability can feel so scary to people but it so freeing. Look at the insight that came to you by doing so. This is my favorite read from you..Thank you..:)

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Theresa — wow, favorite read from me! That’s saying a lot. Really glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and jumping in the conversation.

  • http://lifebeforethebucket.blogspot.com/ Adrian Waller

    I love the perspective of realizing how we’re so much more alike than we are different. We’re all broken, battered, and lonely. We all need each other. We all need Love.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing this lovely story. I hope you’re able to reconnect with Ahmed someday.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Adrian — yes, we are connected in many ways, but one of which is our common need for love. Glad you liked the post. I hope I get to hear from Ahmed someday, too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/maria.barci.5 Maria Barci

    Thank you, Allison. This whole concept about “Seeing each other” was a beautiful thing to read.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      I’m so glad, Maria. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.chrismorriswrites.com/ Chris Morris

    This is a beautiful and stirring piece to me. It is far too easy to just put our heads down, do our job, and say we have done everything we can. So often what we actually mean is we have done enough. I am convinced we are called to do radically more than enough.

    Many years ago, I took a group of people monthly to a temporary crisis home for abandoned and abused kids. This was always heart-wrenching, as we saw pain and sorrow in the eyes of little ones far too young to have to endure such things. One time, and one child, stick out to me. I played Battleship with Bobby and he kicked my butt. Not because I was letting him win; I stink at that game. I went to give him a high-five to congratulate him for the game, but he was crying.

    “Are you okay, Bobby?”
    “Nobody ever finished a game with me, ever, in my whole life. It feel great to finish a game. Thanks man.” And he hugged me.

    I learned that day we will never know what giving of our time and energy, even losing a game of Battleship will mean to someone. And yes, we both cried as we hugged that day.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Oh wow, Chris. Thank you so much for sharing that story.

  • Emily_Maynard

    You shine in this piece, Ally. Thank you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Thanks Em!

  • Carol Vinson

    Ahhh to actually be seen. Seems so simple yet it truly is not. We do such a good job at hiding our real selves. In doing so I think we mask our ability to ‘see’ others as well.

    Here’s to taking off the masks and seeing as well as allowing ourselves to be seen!


    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Oh yes, we do such a good job at hiding, especially when we feel shame. Thank you Carol for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • phil

    I’ve come across your writing once somewhere else… both times I was deeply moved. Much to think about. Thank you. (p.s. – i look forward to reading the book)

    • http://www.facebook.com/allison.vesterfelt.7 Ally Vesterfelt

      Thanks Phil. I’m really glad you liked the article, and I can’t wait to share the book1

  • Diana Trautwein

    Ally – this is just beautiful. Thank you.

  • Anne

    Wow, this hit hard. This is my first year teaching, and now that we’re getting to the end of the year it’s really easy to believe that it’s too late for some of my students–that I’ve tried my best to teach them, but if they haven’t got it by now they’ll never get it. Thank you so much for the beautiful reminder to keep on trying to see my students.

  • hurtingheart

    I remember the first time someone “saw” me. She saw that I was being abused in my family and that I was in spiritual turmoil that caused my mental distress. She saw why I was like I was. Unlike the psychiatrists who were supposed to treat me and just looked at symptoms and drugged me. I was 24 and was seen at last

  • RidicuRyder

    Interesting message Allison, you were featured on SteadilySkippingStones.wordpress.com

    Good luck in Rwanda, I’ve known a few refugees, they don’t seem too bothered by facades of life and have a wonderful knack for appreciating simple things.