A Gift of Understanding

At 6:04 A.M. I received by telephone my substitute teaching assignment. I paid scant attention to anything but the hour and the address. Two hours later I entered a long drive leading to a large building nestled on a gentle slope—and surrounded by a ten-foot fence. A life-size statue of the Virgin Mary guarded the entrance. The cool November air and early frost had not dimmed the brilliance of the huge maple and oak trees that lined the drive.

I parked near the entrance, but noticed no other cars or humans. Heavy steel doors opened to reveal a dimly lit foyer containing a switchboard, two couches, a vase of plastic flowers, and another Madonna. My footsteps echoed in the still, quiet darkness. Where were the students and other teachers? An uneasiness began to overtake me. A faint light showed from the end of the hall, and I quickened my steps. Humanity at last.

Inside a small room sat a white-clad nun, poised at an old oak desk, pounding away at an ancient typewriter. She smiled as I entered. “You must be Mrs. Kimball. Thank you for coming. I’m Sister Alice, director of the school.” Tiny wisps of gray hair escaped her headdress. When she stood, her petite body seemed engulfed in her habit, but the firm grip of her hand and the compassion and energy she projected left me with no doubt why she was the director.

“These girls are from twelve to eighteen, and more sinned against than sinners,” she told me. With a sick feeling I realized what kind of school I had agreed to teach at for the next two weeks. Images of movie scenes flashed before me. I imagined the girls coming in with concealed knives.

I was brought back to reality as Sister Alice continued. “We have a hard time finding substitutes when they know they’re coming here.” (Small wonder, I thought, but I said nothing.) “If you have any problems, just send them to me.”

The arrival of the students and the other teachers kept me from running. I could endure anything for one day; I had proved that in several junior high schools. But two weeks with delinquent girls?

I stood at my desk as the girls entered and went to their typewriters. I was surprised to see how normal they looked. All shapes, sizes, creeds, colors, ages, and personalities. Tiny, shy Annette, thirteen, was the baby of the class. Six-foot Cindy looked the oldest. She was a strawberry bleached blonde, tough-looking, with a strange laugh. The other girls seemed to consider her a leader.

The morning classes went fairly well, and I was beginning to think that perhaps this wouldn’t be an impossible assignment after all.

My first afternoon period was a loosely planned current issues class for which the girls obviously weren’t prepared. As I tried to get responses about world events, a dark-eyed girl named Gail who had been sitting in sullen silence burst out, “This is a dull class and I don’t want to say nothing.”

“To say anything,” I corrected. The girls howled at my attempt to correct Gail’s grammar. Apparently Gail was considered the school intellectual. Soon they were throwing pencils and papers, and even my junior high experience proved futile in restoring order. When I sent Gail to Sister Alice—which meant an automatic loss of privileges—the girls quickly quieted down. They grudgingly completed a written assignment.

At the end of the day, I felt too embarrassed to admit to Sister Alice that I did not want to return. It was only for two weeks—surely I could endure it for that long.

Things got better. As the days passed, I learned to anticipate emotional outbursts and to handle them in a more productive way. I also heard snatches of conversations that shocked me:

“They say they love me, but when I was in the hospital, no one visited me.”

“My parents have planned a cruise over the holidays just so they won’t have to look after me.”

I arrived one morning to find whispering students and worried teachers. Gail had run away. “They’ll catch her for sure,” a wide-eyed Annette said, “and she’ll lose all her privileges again.” Sure enough, Gail was returned that night, frightened but wiser. Hers was a bitter lesson, for she had been slated to represent the school on a trip to Washington, D.C.—a privilege she had prepared for but lost.

Sister Alice’s statement “more sinned against than sinners” kept coming to my mind. I wished I had been more responsive to Gail. I remembered the first day when I had sent her to Sister Alice. I could have used a little more patience. Current issues cannot seem very important when you are scared and lonely. Perhaps I should have thrown my current issues out the window while they were throwing their pencils and said, “OK, Gail, tell me why you’re bored.” Instead, I had been determined to present the lesson as outlined. Gail was right. It was a boring class, and while the girls did need to know about current issues, they needed understanding more. I could have tried to find the answer to Gail’s boredom instead of just restoring order and punishing her.

I knew I had a long way to go toward understanding these girls, but I was a little more patient with them after Gail came back. I tried to be more sensitive—to understand what they were feeling and why. And rather than judging them, I tried to respond to their needs.

Gradually, most of the girls began to open up to me—and even to confide their fears. But a few remained distant. Nancy, an overweight but attractive fifteen-year-old, was withdrawn and distrustful. Her image stayed with me even when I was away from the school. I wanted to help her feel better about life and about herself. But I had no idea about what to do or where to start.

I had looked forward to the girls’ regularly scheduled “day of recollection,” a time when they were to discuss the spiritual side of their lives. But I was unprepared for their frank outbursts. “I don’t think God knows or cares who I am or what I’m doing,” a thin, nervous girl named Linda snapped. As a mother of teenagers myself, I was used to candor. Instead of acting shocked, I asked them to express why they felt so betrayed. Then I felt I had to speak also.

“God does care, and you need Him to help you overcome your problems. Don’t expect a magic wand, but He can guide your footsteps, if you start asking and seeking.” Teenagers can’t take much preaching, so I added one parting remark. “Use your experiences here as stepping stones to a better life when you leave. You will be more tolerant and understanding of the problems of others, and will perhaps help prevent another girl from having to go through what you have experienced.”

I asked the girls to respond, and I got an outpouring of stories about fears and mistakes—from everyone but Nancy. She still sat silent, sunk even deeper into her shell. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t know what to do.

As the Christmas holidays drew near, so did my day of departure. The girls grew tense and restless and could hardly concentrate on their studies.

“What happens if they have no place to go?” I asked Sister Alice.

“Sometimes they prefer what they have here. Last year a girl walked nine miles on Christmas Eve because she couldn’t stand the contention in her own home. Her father was drunk, so she came back here.” My eyes filled with tears. I could not answer. Perhaps there was no answer.

I had one last chance to express my love to the girls. I determined to prepare a holiday program they would enjoy. My daughter Kay, a part-time model, would discuss grooming, diet, and clothing. Another daughter, April, and I would sing a duet.

I was surprised and pleased at how excited the girls seemed during our program. Even Nancy watched everything with great interest. As Kay was about to select a girl to demonstrate hair styles and makeup, I whispered to her to select Nancy. But she didn’t have to—Nancy volunteered. Kay spent some time pointing out Nancy’s good features and suggesting colors that would enhance her natural beauty. She cleansed Nancy’s skin and used a little makeup to complement her facial structure. Then she combed her hair in a simple but flattering style.

Nancy’s eyes were now bright pools of light that sparkled against her brown lashes. Her even white teeth gleamed in a wide smile as she returned to her seat. The girls looked in amazement at the transformation that had occurred.

Yes, Nancy was smiling at last. I don’t think I will ever forget the hope and stars I saw in her eyes. But the true transformation was in my own heart. I had once assumed the girls were all delinquents. Now I saw them as troubled and confused teenagers—not much different from my own and others I had known. Most of them were victims of a society that was ready to abandon them at the first sign of trouble.

Not wanting any disruptions in my life, I, too, had wanted to flee. But I had stayed. I had started by making what I thought was a “sacrifice” to teach these girls, only to find the larger lesson was mine. As I watched Sister Alice run the school with such love and care, I learned the real meaning of compassion. The season’s greatest gift to me was that smile from Nancy.

[illustration] Illustrated by Lori Anderson

Violet Tew Kimball, a free-lance writer and photographer, serves as music chairman in the St. Louis (Illinois) Second Ward.