Doing The Heart Work

I drop off two boxes of generic school food and two bags of chocolate milk pints on the cement stoop — rapping on the storm door that I know will not open while I am standing there. I am acutely aware of the school that sits across the street from this house, its parking lot literally dominates the neighborhood. It is a fairly new building with a brightly colored playground with a twisting slide, and a good sized staff based on the number of cars parked in the lot. Ironically, this is not the school my student attends.

It has been a long haul accessing internet for this young man. He doesn’t live within the city limits where free internet is available for every student. He lives just 1.5 miles outside that invisible line and the county he lives in doesn’t have a similar deal in place. We’ve called in favors, reached out to the public district which runs the school a stone throw from his from his yard — despite some momentary flashes of possibility they have all been dashed. His mom, an immigrant, struggles with the language and hasn’t been able to fulfill the multistep processes the commercial carriers require; upload this, produce this document, download that. Finally, we are able to arrange for a device to be mailed to his home, only to have the carrier request additional proof that they are deserving.

My heart sinks each day his teacher reports that he has dialed into class with his phone and not a computer. The list of his missing assignments mounts and it looks bleak. And then, this morning I receive the text I have been waiting for, “He is on the computer!” Finally. After all these months, he has what so many other students take for granted.

The Catholic school where I am Assistant Principal is about two miles away, but it feels like a million — as it evokes a completely different era from its modern counterpart. Its graystone block building anchors a large campus with a church, convent, rectory. Only the school remains occupied. I often imagine how vibrant it must have been when all these buildings had once been full and it had been at the center of everyday life in this community.

At one time, this was a neighborhood school. The same people who prayed each week in the pews taught or studied in the desks of the school. There was a reliable “sameness” to the sights and sounds of it all…people happily intending to live and die — and all that came in between — within the sacraments of the parish.

Now students come from varying neighborhoods, speaking a number of languages, sporting names that their mostly white teachers articulate clumsily, often to their delight and our shame. Families may identify as Sikh, Muslim, Baptists, Buddhist, or “none of the above.” The one commonality they share is that each of them deserves a real shot at their dreams and equal access to the same opportunities as their peers regardless of language, race, and economic status. There is richness in their diverse cultures, music in their unique tongues, wisdom gained through their struggles and triumphs.

I climb back into my car, hoping they don’t wait too long to rescue all that chocolate milk, and drive in the direction of my next stop. Here, I’m dropping off books and instructional materials. I doubt anyone will answer the door here either. I will lean the books against the front door, trying to make them as visible as possible while ensuring they are out of the wind, and deliver a few sharp knocks before heading home.

I ring the bell and knock on the door just to alert them to my deposit. As I turn to go, I hear something, and to my amazement, the door opens and there she stands. 3rd grade tall, clad still in her pajamas, she is the eldest child of Vietnamese immigrants who speak English haltingly. Her parents work long hours at their business while she studies remotely in the care of her grandmother. She is quietly deliberate in gathering her thoughts and constucting answers in response to teacher’s questions. When I join her class via Zoom, her little brother (who is neither shy nor quiet) often flies into frame disturbing her focus. Now she smiles and opens the door to gather the books to herself and greets me by name. She is thankful that I have brought her books — I am grateful to be recognized and receive the gift of an unexpected smile. I float off the steps and down the walk to my car.

As I drive away, my heart is full. I literally feel my heart unfurling…and I have one of those moments where you know you are right where you were meant to be. Doing not just the hard work, but the heart work.

4 thoughts on “Doing The Heart Work

  1. I concur with Marybeth – so happy that you are writing again – sharing the struggles and hopes of the kids and families you are working with. You are where you belong, doing the hard work. Serving those in need that many discount. And do not heart work, keeping your eyes on the humanity of it all. Thank you for being my friend!

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