Sunday, July 22, 2012

How a Story Changed a School

Shaylei was a spunky child. Reeling from the trauma of loss and being bounced from foster home to foster home, she had somehow retained her smile and an incessant sparkle in her eye. Sometimes that sparkle belied the intense pain her little heart still carried and that infections smile masked a wounded soul.

Her adoptive parents enrolled her in our school -- Small Cloud Christian School.
The children accepted her ... at first. As time went on, however, her inner turmoil spilled out into difficult behaviors. The other students pulled back and finally shunned her. This resulted in increased behavior problems, which precipitated further ostracizing by her classmates. It quickly became a vicious cycle.

Her mother, a writer, asked us if it might help the students understand Shaylei better if they heard a story explaining Shaylei's background. Her hope was that once they understood, then instead of shunning Shaylei, they would understand her and help her. We agreed and the following story was penned. Called, "Johnny's Heart," it is used here by permission of Lyn Divoky, Shaylei's dedicated and talented mother.

Not very far away and not very long ago, a tiny little baby was born. His mother named him Johnny and wrapped him in a tiny blanket because he was very, very small. She put him in his crib and then went away to do fun things that she enjoyed. Johnny became hungry and cried, but his mother didn't hear him because she was having too much fun playing her games. Many days went by and little Johnny became smaller because he had eaten no food. And his tiny, little mind began to understand a lesson about the world. He began to understand that no one cared about him, and he must not be very special. No matter how much he cried, no one came to help him. No one held him and cuddled him like other babies are held and cuddled.

It wasn't long before Johnny became very sick. His mother stopped playing her games long enough to notice that Johnny wasn't crying anymore. He was too weak and sick to cry. So Johnny's mother took him to the hospital. The doctor noticed that Johnny was very small and sick. He knew right away that Johnny's mother had been playing her games instead of taking care of him. The doctor also knew that Johnny would die if he stayed with his mother. So Johnny was sent to a new home.

Poor Johnny didn't understand why he was living with people he didn't know. But it wasn't long before Johnny started to grow. These new people fed Johnny and held him, at least a little bit. Johnny began to learn a new lesson about the world. he learned that some people are nice. Johnny lived with this new family until he learned to smile and giggle like most healthy babies. He loved to look into the face of his new mother, and he felt happy and content.

Then a horrible thing happened!

Johnny was taken away from his new mother and moved to another home with people that he didn't know!

Johnny's little heart was about to break! He didn't understand why he had to move. Why didn't his new mother want to keep him? So Johnny learned another lesson about the world. Johnny learned that people may act nice, but soon they will hurt him. So he must not be special after all.

Johnny had many birthdays, but he never had a birthday party. Every year when his birthday came around, he was living with a different family. Most of the families that he lived with had children of their own, and they didn't have the time to do anything special for Johnny. He would live with one family for a little while, then someone would come to the house and take him away. It wasn't long before Johnny learned his most important lesson about the world. No one loved him and everyone would hurt him eventually.

By the time Johnny was almost four years old, he became a very smart little boy. He had learned a lot about the world and he had figured out how to keep himself from getting hurt. You see, he realized that he had been making a big mistake each time he moved into a new home. Whenever he moved, he let himself dream that this would be the LAST time he'd ever have to move again. He imagined that THIS family would REALLY love him and would keep him FOREVER. He began to believe that he was special enough for someone to love. He now knew that it was wrong to dream.

So Johnny decided he would never make that mistake again! He figured out that if he acted mean and nasty, his new family wouldn't pretend like they loved him. Instead, they would yell at him and tell him the truth about how bad he was. He wouldn't have to listen to any more lies about love. And his new plan worked. He acted just as badly as he knew how! He taught himself how to be mean and cruel even though he didn't feel that way on the inside. But he was determined to protect himself from ever getting hurt by people again! No one would ever pretend to love him and then send him away again. In fact, he was so smart that he figured out that if he were REALLY bad, they would yell at him so much that he would NEVER have to worry about loving them. So when it came time to be taken away from them, he wouldn't even care! He knew that loving people only caused pain and a broken heart.

One day Johnny was taken away from his home again. This had been his 11th home in only 5 1/2 years! Poor Johnny had been tossed around like an old ball all of his life. Inside his heart was a tiny little room where love was pushed away, but he had learned not to let it show. When he was alone, he would allow that tiny little room in his heart to open, and he would fee so sad and fear that he would never find anyone to share his love. He didn't even know how to show his love. He had been mean and nasty for so long. That was all he knew how to do. He still believed that he wasn't special enough for anyone to love.

Then Johnny's life turned completely upside down! He was given to a family that acted differently than all of the others. He tried all the tricks he had learned, but none of them worked! He tried to be as mean and nasty as he could be, but instead of yelling at him and telling him how bad he was, they pretended to love him! But Johnny had learned that no one in this world could really, truly love him, so he tried extra hard to be very bad. But this new family kept pretending to love him, no matter how badly he acted. He was so confused!

Very slowly, Johnny began to open the little room in his heart to his new family. At first, he'd open it just a tiny bit and then close it again. Then he'd open it a little more. Each time he allowed his new family to see the love in his heart, they showed him all the love they had in their hearts. Little by little, he began to see that they weren't pretending to love him. They really did love him! They even took him to see a judge and signed some papers that made him a real member of their family. These special papers were like a promise that no one could ever take him away from his family again. This was HIS forever family.

So it seems like Johnny's story has a very happy ending, doesn't it? Sadly, endings this happy mostly happen in fairy tales. But this is a TRUE story, and it happened in the REAL world. So even though Johnny learned that his new family really, truly loved him, his heart still didn't believe that OTHER people would love him also. When it came time for Johnny to go to school, he wanted the other kids to like him and be his friend. But he didn't believe this could ever happen. And he didn't even know how to act like a friend to anyone. He had never had even one real friend in all his life. All he knew was how to act mean and nasty. No matter how hard he tried, that mean "Old Johnny" kept sneaking out of his heart. Before long, the other kids at school decided that they didn't like Johnny. He was too mean! They started being mean right back. So Johnny was learning another lesson about the world. Even though his family really, truly loved him, no one else ever would.

His teachers became worried about him and so did his parents. They knew about the little room in Johnny's heart where his love was kept. They also knew that Johnny wanted to open that room up to the other kids at school, but he was too afraid that they would reject him. So Johnny's mom decided to write a story for the children in the class. This story was all about Johnny's life and about that little room filled with love, tucked deep in his heart.

So the teacher read the story to Johnny's class. Then she told them a very important secret! She explained to them that if they showed love whenever Johnny acted mean and nasty, he would start opening up that little room in his heart, just like he did at home. At first, he might think they were just pretending, but if they would keep trying, little by little, the door to his heart would open wide and the mean and nasty Johnny would go away!

You see, Johnny hasn't been with his new family for very long, and he's still not sure if he is special enough to love. It will take awhile for him to really, truly believe it. But if his family keeps trying, and his teachers keep trying, and his classmates keep trying ... well, if everyone keeps trying, Johnny will eventually learn a new lesson about the world.

He will see that he IS very special, and he won't be afraid to show love ever again! Now THAT would be a fairy tale ending!

As for the rest of the story?

The class sat riveted as the story was read. It was a total "ah-hah" moment as an understanding swept over them like I've never seen before. Of course, they wanted to know who Johnny was and when the reveal was made, Shaylei's classmates were fully on board as her official peer support team. Yes, there were still fights and, yes, there were still problems. But once the kids understood her story and once Shaylei understood their love for her, things really did began to improve.

Fast forward eight years...

Shaylei's family had long since moved away, when one day, my teaching partner plopped a letter on my desk and said, "Read it!" A multitude of memories swirled through my mind as I scanned the invitation to Shaylei's eighth grade graduation at her church. Would we come? She'd understand if we couldn't, since it was far away (six hours drive round trip). But -- and this line really jumped out at me -- Small Cloud Christian School was where she had learned how to be a friend. She'd really like it if we could come. Could we?

Could we?!

You'd better believe it!!!

Shaylei today -- happy, healthy, and a social butterfly! Look what a little loving teamwork can do!