Overcome by the enormity of change that inevitably arrives with every end-of-year transition at school, I remember gazing at the naked mismatched desks, the barren coatroom, and the dozens of cardboard boxes stacked precariously and filled to the brim with classroom essentials awaiting their new destination, nostalgia tugging at my heartstrings.
As I waited for the entry bell to ring one final time, the early morning sunrays streamed through the exterior door’s small square window, illuminating once-white walls of the classroom, now scuffed and dented, proof that for a whole year this silent space had indeed held and nurtured a group of exuberant, jostling, and lively beings.
It had been unforgettable year. I had spent it teaching and learning from a diverse, challenging, wonderful group of Grade One children, connecting deeply with their families, and creating unbreakable bonds with the dynamic staff and administration of an inner-city school in Victoria.
It had also been an exciting and surreal time, for me, personally. That August, while vacationing in France, I received the surprise of a lifetime when my now-husband ushered me to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, lowered himself onto one knee and proposed. The moment had been nothing short of cinematic. A small crowd cheered and applauded as I accepted his offer, we laughed, cried and embraced. Right then, as if on cue, the great tower had come to life, enveloping us in its dancing, sparkling light. A few months later, we purchased and moved into the home in which we are now raising our family.
We had spent the year carefully balancing the many aspects of our busy, young lives, palpable pre-wedding anticipation and excitement permeating everything.
In this brief moment of solitude, peace and gratitude stood beside me as I peered over the edge of transformation.
Suddenly, the bell rang. I could hear the unmistakable boisterous voices of my students rising to crescendo as they formed a line against the outside wall. Inhaling deeply, I carefully swung the door open and welcomed my eager students inside for their last day of school.
“Mme. Michael! Mme. Michael!”
Julia*, a normally-quiet, compassionate, and patient little girl, excitedly pushed her way through the crowd and bounded toward me with a toothy smile, thin blond pony-tail swaying. I noticed she was clasping a bulky shoebox adorned with stickers and decorated lovingly with paint.
The eldest of four children, Julia was classically responsible, earnest, and always heartbreakingly willing to help others. She was also chronically tardy for school and would often show up wearing the same clothing she had worn for several days in a row.
I recall one particular day after school her exhausted mother had lingered, a baby on her hip and a couple of mischievous toddlers keeping her running in frantic zigzags throughout our conversation. With tears welling in her eyes, she had confided that with a husband frequently deployed on important military missions, despite her best efforts, she found it hard to make it to school on time. The baby was up throughout the night, she struggled with her health, it was hard financially to get a meal on the table, and she often felt overwhelmed by loneliness. Although my 20-something-self wasn’t entirely sure how to help or even respond to this mother’s plea for support and kinship, I grew to understand how Julia seemed years beyond her six-year-old-self.
Ignoring the other children jockeying for their positions on the carpet, impatient to begin their last day, Julia thrust the decorated box into my surprised hands.
“This is for you, Mme. Michael!” she exclaimed with glittering anticipation.
Drawing the box toward me, I hinged it open.
Inside, arranged in a cushion of newsprint carefully folded into the base of the shoebox, were the following treasures, meticulously selected for me, undoubtedly from the shelves of her very own bedroom:
A factory painted bunny with a broken ear,
A bright pink, bouncy ball,
A handmade bracelet made of mismatched letter beads,
And a vending-machine ring
Julia stood before me beaming with pride and excitement.
This sweet little girl, who had nothing to give, had given me the most meaningful and beautiful gift I have ever received.
It took everything I had not to break down.
In that moment, I pulled her close to me, wrapping my arms around her tiny shoulders, tears brimming in my eyes.
Thanking her for thoughtful kindness, I collected myself and turned to the class, ready to start our last day together.