I remember the first time Jenni walked into my seminary class and said hi to me. She had a very difficult time speaking, her words were slurred and hard to understand, and she limped and hobbled as she tried to make her legs carry her frail body toward her desk. During Jenni’s first week of “mainstreaming” in my class, she seemed content to be mostly ignored by her classmates, who appeared to be struggling to figure out how to interact with her.
Jenni would try to speak, and very few students could understand her. She had a difficult time keeping her nose wiped, and sometimes she would drool and soil her shirt. The students in my classroom were unaccustomed to the needs and actions of someone like Jenni, so most of them distanced themselves from her both physically and socially and, as a result, proceeded to politely ignore her.
However, they weren’t aware that inside Jenni’s deformed body was a keen mind, a heart of gold, and an indomitable spirit crying out to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted, and to be loved. She wouldn’t be ignored, politely or otherwise.
I’ll never forget the day when Jenni asked me if she could say something to the class. I wondered what she wanted to say to everyone, but I never expected her to deliver the message she did.
“I neeeeed a frrriennnd,” she stuttered. “I neeeeeeeed sommeonne toooo ssiitt bbyy mmee attt lllunnch.”
As she finished her last word, a hush settled over the class. Jenni stood erect and, rather than doing the socially acceptable thing and taking her seat, she waited for a volunteer. Finally, from the back of the classroom, Treasure raised her hand and said, “I’ll be your friend, Jenni.” Jenni responded by asking, “And sit by me at lunch?”
Treasure responded, “And sit by you at lunch.”
“Every day?” asked Jenni.
“Every day,” answered Treasure.
This conversation relieved the class but also gave Treasure’s friend Wendy the confidence to raise her hand and tell Jenni that she would also be her friend and sit by her at lunch every day. The “miracle of Jenni” had begun!
The next day Treasure and Wendy sat by Jenni at lunch and then helped her through the school parking lot to the seminary building. I noticed as the days turned into weeks that Treasure and Wendy began to translate Jenni’s words when we couldn’t understand her.
As the students began to see what a beautiful, intelligent person Jenni was, they began to invite her to activities, to pick her up, to help her with her difficulties. On one occasion, Jenni excitedly told me she had a date with a young man named Kurt. “He’s so cute!” she told me. This led to other dates, more recognition, and more fun.
Often during class when someone would be sharing their feelings and begin to weep, Jenni would, unannounced, get up and walk over to this person and put her arm around them and hold them. This would touch the class, and soon we would all be weeping. Jenni would often bear her testimony to the class. She would express her gratitude for her many blessings, especially her family, and then share her firm conviction of Jesus Christ.
The months turned into years, and soon it was time for Jenni to graduate from seminary. I remember the love I felt for her as she awkwardly walked up to receive her diploma, and I realized all over again how she had blessed my life. As the ceremony and the meeting ended, I encountered Jenni’s mother at the back of the chapel. As we talked, her eyes watered as she said something like this: “You’ll never know what you’ve done for my little girl.”
I replied, “Oh, not me. Look around,” as I pointed to Jenni’s classmates. “They’re the ones.”
Jenni’s classmates helped her realize what a wonderful person she is. They’re the ones who included her in their circle of friends and helped her feel like she belonged; they’re the ones who saw through her handicap to the special needs of her heart—a young woman wanting to be accepted and understood; they’re the ones who came to see into the beauty of her soul; the ones who helped perform a modern-day miracle—the miracle of Jenni.