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For The Strength of Youth

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    Ch. 44 The Wisdom of the Wise
Submitted by lindaclarke on 21 February 2007 - 4:59pm.

“The first day of school and what shall I wear?” she thought as she pulled her hair into a soft bun. Melinda felt like a child going to her first day of school, worried that her students would not accept her. She chose a pink muslin dress to wear and quickly ran downstairs and into the kitchen for a bite to eat, and then out the door she ran with her books in hand.

After arriving at school, she placed a notebook and a yellow pencil at each desk. The color yellow was new. Usually the pencils were wooden with no color at all, but the pencil manufacturers had recently decided to color the pencils yellow for a very good reason. The best graphite for pencils came from China. American pencil manufacturers wanted to let people know that their pencils contained Chinese graphite, and in China, the color yellow represented royalty and respect. So, American pencil manufacturers decided to paint their pencils bright yellow, both to advertise their association with China and to represent respect.

Nervous, Melinda stood in front of her desk, quietly awaiting her students. They seemed to trickle in one at a time and then a few more came in bunches, laughing and talking as they found their seats. They sat down and folded their arms, staring at her and waiting to see what she would say. Melinda felt as if she were on trial and waiting to be judged.

The children ranged in age from six to fifteen, and Melinda knew that she would have to divide the children up to teach them. Looking into their faces and yearning to be accepted, she took one step toward the students.

“I’m Miss Gamble. I come from Boston, Massachusetts, and I used to live by the Atlantic Ocean. How many of you have seen the ocean?”

All of them shook their heads in the negative.

“Well, when you look out on the ocean, you see nothing but water as far as the eye can see. It’s not like Bear Lake where you can see land on the other side. And when you walk along the beach, you can find shells strewn before your feet, lying on the white sand. If you take a bucket along, you can pick them up and collect them. Usually they are small shells and many are broken from the pounding of the waves.”

Melinda held up a conch shell for everyone to see. When she saw the interest in their eyes, she began to relax. Then she walked past each of the students to let them feel the smoothness of the shell. As she walked toward the back of the class, she noticed the edge of a desk behind the bookshelf. Peering around the shelf, she was surprised to see a young student sitting at the desk with her head lying upon her arms. Her eyes were closed.

With a calm voice, Melinda asked, “What are you doing here? Why is your desk separated from the rest of the students?”

One of the students said, rather snobbishly in Melinda’s opinion, “That’s where she’s supposed to sit.”

“Why?” Melinda was startled by such an answer.

“Our last teacher told her that she had to sit there from now on and she can’t sit with the other students. She’s a troublemaker, he says. She has to be out of sight until she can learn to behave.”

Another student volunteered, “And she fights with other kids, too.”

Another student stood and pointed accusingly at the young girl. “And she doesn’t want to learn, either. She just sits there and won’t say a thing. She won’t open her book and she won’t do her lessons. She doesn’t write or read. All she does is frown.”

Melinda was shocked that a teacher would actually isolate this child from the rest of the class. She was appalled that he would tell the rest of the students that she was a troublemaker and degrade her in front of her peers. How could a teacher do such a thing? What kind of example was he setting about the acceptance of others? She was infuriated by this new knowledge.

“No wonder she frowns. If I were treated like this, I would frown too. Class, I have put notebooks and a pencil on your desk. Will you please write down your feelings about your first day at school? Those who haven’t learned to write yet may draw a picture instead.”

Melinda knelt down and looked at the young girl. She had opened her eyes and was staring at her desk in defiance. She had on a very pretty blue-flowered dress and her blond hair was neatly braided in the back. Her face was clean and her blue eyes seemed angry.

“What’s your name?” Melinda asked in a gentle tone.

The girl said nothing but just glared at Melinda. She knew that this girl had been treated badly by another teacher and now she must try to undo all of that in order to earn this girl’s trust. Apparently she was taken care of at home because she was clean and neat. But what was making her so angry? Was it the rejection of the other students or a problem at home?

Once again, she spoke to the young girl. “My name is Miss Gamble. I will be your new teacher from now on. What is your name?”

The girl turned her head toward the wall and did not answer. Rebelliousness was written all over her face. One of the students turned around and said, “Her name is Jenny. She won’t talk. She usually doesn’t.”

Melinda raised her eyebrows. So, this was Jenny. Looking at the other students writing diligently, she wondered what to do. Then, looking at the young girl at her desk, she decided to try another method. Knowing that she needed some private time with her, Melinda dismissed the students for ten minutes of free time outside. The class cheered and ran out to play. After the last student left, Melinda looked into Jenny’s eyes.

“Jenny, what is your favorite color?”

Jenny stared at the wall, her mouth pursed tightly in a straight line and her eyes full of defiance.

“Mine is pink and lavender. I like those colors, so I usually pick those colors for my dresses. How about you?”

Still no answer.

“Is it blue? You have on a very pretty dress, Jenny. I love the blue flowers. And you have very pretty blue eyes, the color of the lake here. Your favorite color must be blue. Is that right?”

The hard, angry look in her eyes began to soften. Jenny looked at Melinda and nodded curtly.

At last she got a response. That was a beginning. Melinda stroked the softness of Jenny’s hair and said, “Your hair is so pretty. When I was little, I wanted to have hair the color of wheat, just like yours. But look what color it is. I just say it’s dark brown, but others argue that it’s dark auburn. To have hair the color of wheat is very lucky, Jenny.” At last a slight smile came to Jenny’s lips. “And, Jenny, it’s braided so nicely. Who braids it? Your mother?”

Oh no. Melinda instantly remembered that Aunt Martha had mentioned Jenny did not have a mother. She had stuck her foot in her mouth. Now what? The last thing she wanted to do was make Jenny feel bad.

The corners of Jenny’s mouth began to gradually turn upwards. “No, I don’t have a mother. Pa does it. I tried once but it looked messy and so I’ve got to keep trying, Pa says. He says to not give up.”

Melinda was elated. She was able to break the barrier between them. “Your father is right, Jenny.”

Melinda knew that her next question would be personal, but she needed to know. If things were not right at home, that could be another problem that Jenny would bring to school. She needed to know if Jenny was mistreated or not.

“Is your pa a good father and do you love him?”

Jenny’s eyes brightened with love and she smiled at Melinda and nodded. Melinda could tell that Jenny loved her father very much and she sighed with relief.

“I’m glad. Where do you live, Jenny?”

Melinda knew approximately where Jenny lived, but she eeded Jenny to talk to her. If she could get her to communicate, then she would be making progress.

In a most quiet tone of voice, Jenny answered, “On a ranch not too far from here on the south side of town.”

Melinda lowered her eyes and said quietly, “I’m sorry about your mother. I didn’t mean to pry.”

Jenny grinned with amusement, as if trying to stifle a giggle. “That’s all right. I never knew her.”

“So, Jenny, what’s your favorite subject in school?”

Instantly the mood changed and the corners of Jenny’s mouth turned down into a frown. She blurted out with anger, “Don’t have one.”

“But there must be something that you like in school.”

Jenny’s frown remained and the defiance in her eyes was returning as she quickly shook her head.

When Melinda noticed that Jenny’s attitude had changed, she decided to change the subject to a more positive one. Apparently school was the wrong subject, so she decided to approach it differently. She wanted Jenny to speak with happier tones in her voice, so she decided to ask her about the people she loved. “Do you have a grandmother or grandfather nearby?”

“My grandpa and grandma live in the East. I don’t get to see them often. And my other ones live in Salt Lake City and that’s my pa’s folks.”

“Do they want you to go to school and learn?”

Jenny’s eyes looked down at the floor and she had a sober look on her face. “Yes, they do.”

“Jenny, how about if we move your desk up here by my desk and you can be my helper? What do you think about that? I really need help at times, like passing out papers or books or to have someone write something on the board for me.” Melinda touched Jenny’s hand tenderly and asked, “Would you like to be my inkwell monitor? I can help you until you learn the knack of it. I’ve got a thick old apron for you to wear when you fill the inkwells so you won’t get any stain all over your beautiful dress. What do you say?”

Jenny’s face beamed with a smile and her cheeks warmed to a rosy color. Then she nodded with a sparkle in her eyes. Melinda could see the pleasure in her eyes as she looked at her. This new assignment would help Jenny feel important and give her more self-confidence. And that, Melinda sensed, was needed at this time.

Quickly, Melinda picked up the desk and moved it toward the front and sat it next to her desk. “How about this spot, Jenny? Is this all right with you?”

Jenny nodded with a beautiful smile on her face. Then Melinda placed a notebook and yellow pencil on her desk and said, “This is just in case you might want to write something. It’s up to you, all right?” In giving her the freedom of choice, maybe she would not rebel against learning.

Jenny nodded.

Melinda called the class in and everyone settled down at their desks. One of the students called out, “Why is Jenny sitting there? She’s not supposed to. The other teacher placed her at the back and she’s supposed to be there so we don’t have to see her.”

Melinda saw how hurt Jenny’s face was at that comment and it infuriated her. She had to stop this sort of treatment immediately. She said in a stern tone, “I’m the teacher. Your other teacher is not here and I have replaced him. I have my own set of rules. He has his. But my rules do not agree with his.”

Then a thought came to her and she decided this was a time to teach a valuable lesson. “Class, I’m going to teach you something that I learned at a church meeting one day. I can’t remember who said it, but I believe you’ll get the gist of it.” Melinda walked up to the board and wrote in large bold letters, “I love you even if you spit on me every day. I would love you even more because you need it more.— Anonymous”

She heard a few chuckles and giggles come from the students as she wrote on the board. Turning to look at the class, she asked them, “What does this mean to you?”

One student raised his hand. “It means that if someone is mean to you, that you should still love him.”

“You are correct. Everyone needs love. If someone hurts us or spits on us, then maybe he needs more love because he’s hurting inside and we don’t know it. Maybe he’s being rude or mean just to hide his hurt feelings inside. Do you understand?”

Then she pointed to a young man and asked, “What if you were asked to milk the cows and the cow kicked your bucket over and spilled all the milk, and all that hard work was for nothing? Would you be calm about it? I doubt it. Many times when things go wrong with us, we strike out at the first person we see. And many times we strike out at the ones we love. In other words, those who spit on us need more love instead of more anger. I want you to remember this and I want you to learn to love every one of your classmates. Please take out your pencils and notebooks and copy this statement that I have written on the board. Then memorize it.”

Melinda walked to her desk and sat down, already feeling discouraged. With her elbows leaning on the desk, she placed her hands over her face so she could relax. Teaching was not as easy as some would say. Could she do some good in the world and make a difference in anyone’s life here in the West? The tension was building up inside her and her shoulders began to ache. As she sat quietly thinking with her face resting on her hands, she heard the scribbling of a pencil next to her desk. Looking up, she saw Jenny sitting at her desk and actually writing what she had written on the board. Melinda fought back the tears that welled up in her eyes. Jenny did want to learn.

Melinda decided not to give a lesson that day, and instead had the children tell the class what they liked and disliked, and what their favorite books and hobbies were. She wanted to get to know each of the students well and maybe they would get to know one another better, too. Maybe they would get to know Jenny, just as she wanted them to. Before long, Jenny was standing before the class and telling them what she enjoyed doing most on the ranch.

Jenny said proudly, “I like to go riding on my horse with my pa to round up the cattle.”

One of the children gasped, “You have your own horse?”

“Yes, my pa gave her to me. But he makes me brush her down every day and I have to take care of her. He says that when you have an animal, you have to take the responsibility of taking care of him.” Jenny sounded enthusiastic as she spoke of her horse and her responsibilities.

Just before Melinda let the students go for the day, she smiled at them and said, “I have learned a lot today. I learned that some of you like to fish, to swim in the lake, to play ball, and even to ride a horse. I also learned that some of you don’t like to milk cows, to sweep floors, and do dishes. I learned that some of you have brothers and sisters and some don’t. Now would you like to know something about me?”

The students nodded enthusiastically.

“All right, then.” Melinda began walking up and down the aisles as she spoke, looking at each student as she passed. “I like doing dishes and cleaning the house but I dislike cooking. My favorite subject in school is music. I love to sing and I’ll teach you a song every day. Just before we leave today, I want to teach you a song called ‘Clementine.’ Do any of you know this song?”

Some shook their heads and others nodded.

Melinda walked to the front of the room and taught the class one verse at a time. As they sang, Jenny listened carefully and watched her teacher but did not participate and sing with the class. After going through the song a couple times, Jenny’s confidence rose and she began to sing. In no time at all, Jenny’s voice rang out with joy and excitement. She was not on key most of the time, but that did not matter to Melinda. She had broken the barrier between them. With joy swelling in her heart, she listened as the class sang out:

Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’ Clementine. You are gone and lost forever, Oh my darlin’ Clementine.

Author’s Notes:

Jenny’s experience with her former teacher when she was placed behind the bookshelves and the “saying” that her new teacher wrote on the board were taken from an actual experience. In reality, the teacher’s daughter had written home, telling her mother of an inspirational talk she had heard by a church leader. He had said, “I love you even if you spit on me every day. I would love you more because you need it more” (Anonymous). The teacher, in turn, wrote the “saying” on the blackboard, hoping to inspire love and understanding among her students. It worked! The children giggled at the statement, but learned what she was trying to teach them. This experience stayed with me so powerfully that I included it in my novel.

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