Help me be grateful
For the students who like to learn,
And feel challenged by those who don’t.
Help me be thankful
For the students I love,
And understand those I’m learning to love.
Help me be motivated
By the students who learn to think,
And be committed to those afraid to try.
Help me be inspired
By the students who choose right from wrong,
And be patient with those who lack the courage.
Help me be gentle
With the students who make mistakes,
And learn to forgive a difficult child.
Help me be wise
With the students building character,
And be unwavering with those without conscience.
Help me be committed
To the students who are responsible,
And be persistent with those who value nothing.
Help me be calm
In the midst of violence,
And model self-control in the midst of anger.
Help me be faithful
In the days of discouragement,
And be dedicated to make one child smile.
Margaret Elise Grum grew up with 11 siblings who left school way too soon to gain employment and help pay the bills. Grandpa was a cold miner, often living away from home. Grandma housed borders to augment the combined incomes.
A tough schoolyard taught my mother early on to face her fears. Kids taunted and teased her. They threw rocks at the girl whose mom and dad “didn’t speak like Americans.” But my mother understood her parents’ courage in emigrating from Slovenia, so she endured the abuse and refused to be shamed by their broken English.
Her courage continued as a young woman. After months of working long hours in a secretarial pool, she approached her supervisor and asked for a promotion. Her knees quaked and her heart accelerated, but she stood tall and looked him in the eyes.
She met my dashing dad when she was only 18. Although in love, she turned down his marriage proposals three times. She was way too young to settle down. She wanted more living and laughing. Finally, after becoming husband and wife, she linked arms with my father and shipped out across the Atlantic to live overseas.
It wasn’t until my adult life when I learned how my mother’s fears simmered below the surface. She was shy, terribly so. Her shyness taunted her at every gathering, event, and vacation. She had a limited education. Her self-taught knowledge came from books, travel, and crossword puzzles. Her lack of a formal college education intimidated her when meeting new people. Then rheumatoid arthritis invaded her body. When it confined her to a limited life, a new fear was born that of “being a burden.” Yet, living with fears, she chose to be fearless.
Fears propel us into the corners of life, and if we’re honest, sitting on the sidelines gets comfortable, especially as we age and are more hesitant to take risks. So what does fearless look like? Most of us don’t have to fight off cobras. But we could join a conversation. Sit in silence, quieting random thoughts. Step on the scale and laugh at the number. Sign up to learn something new and actually GO. Try something new in a favorite restaurant. Say “no” when we know we should. Say “yes” when we want to! Throughout the world, women and men are being fearless in big, life-changing ways. But, small acts of courage count, too. They prepare us for those serious choices up ahead.
When our prose is clunky or cloudy, writing poetry can keep the mind and imagination percolating. After all, our mantra is Write, Write, Write. We jostle words and arc stories daily to crack open that gem of a story. When our brains are fuzzed, I suggest penciling poems.
Living in Colorado in 1981, I often sat in nature when wrestling writers’ block. One day, while sitting on a boulder with my journal, a lizard scrutinized me. We started a conversation. I tried to capture it verse:
Hello, Mr. Lizard, or Are You Ms.?
How clever of you to camouflage your existence
by blending with bark and bushes!
You must teach me the art of concealment,
if you would be so kind.
Plainly, my red flannel would not be
your choice of attire in these woods.
May I peer closer to get better acquainted
as you cock your head my way?
Oh, how your golden eyes mirror the sunlight,
reflecting rays of unease at my presence.
Would you please forgive my intrusion
into your Utopian solitude?
Oh, the jokes we would swap if we could but move
beyond the language of body and eyes!
What wisdom you could share given your age
and my youth!
Thank you, dear lizard, for our silent conversation,
an exchange of emotions between species.
After all, we are family under this galaxy of stars;
vital allies in our quest to carry on.
I set out to learn about my students’ lives and dreams. Through parent-teacher conferences and home visits, I witnessed a culture and economic life very different from mine. The more I connected, the more I sought and celebrated diversity in literature.
Two special memories wrap around Kevin and Charles. Kevin lived with his mom, grandma, and older brother. Dad had taken a one-way “vacation.” Mom worked day and night. Grandma was too old to hear well. The older brother took out his teenage angst on Kevin.
Charles lived with both parents, five siblings, and a cousin. Most days he greeted me with a smile that stretched across his face while his stomach growled for more breakfast. Charles wore his favorite T-shirt every day until the odor grew too strong even for him.
That first week, I didn’t know my students. I thought Kevin needed me to be his “friend,” listening, laughing, affirming. Kevin’s behavior and academics steadily improved. Then came the day Kevin taught me a lesson: these kids didn’t need more friends. They needed more adults to set rules and boundaries. Kevin threw a tantrum over a book that both he and a classmate wanted. I pulled the boys apart and began my lecture. Kevin’s eyes sized me up. He flung his anger and pain at me. “You be my frien. You cain’t tell me.” Kevin didn’t respect me since I didn’t act like the adults in his life.
Then there was Charles. He opened my eyes to diversity in language. When a teacher Miss Kelly got the flu, we made cards. Charles asked me, “How you spell whale, Miz Jurca?”
“Do you mean like a big whale in the ocean?” I asked.
Charles nodded and smiled big time. “W-H-A-L-E,” I said.
I collected the cards and read Charles’ note first: “I sure how you get whale.”
Diversity lived in my classroom! How could a white woman from Detroit be so blind? I’ll be ever thankful to these students. They gave me new lenses to see the world. I embraced diversity. I’d come a long way from Dick, Jane, and their dog Flip. I cared about finding stories that reflected these kids. I wanted these kids to see themselves in the books they read and loved. I grabbed every Erza Jack Keats’ book I could, but found few authors who took on the challenge.
Praise to authors and illustrators who rise to this challenge today. A powerful article in NCTE’s September 2017 issue of Council Chronicle interviews Jacqueline Woodson, a best-selling author who wants to empower kids of color. She believes in the “power of the pen and how it has been used to change the world….”
Then there’s the talented, passionate illustrator and author Vanessa Brantley Newton. On September 26, I attended a webinar hosted byNorthTexas SCBWI. Newton presented. She inspired us by her art, writing, and singing! Diversity for Newton isn’t just a buzz word. Diversity is her “heart’s cry.” She knows “children are not colorblind.”
Words and art let every child know he is valuable. If stories are mirrors and reflections to help us see ourselves and others in the world, then literature needs diversity.