I daresay every teacher has one or two (or more) students that has carved a permanent place in his/her heart—the ones that you continue to think about, wondering where they are and how they’re doing. I have a few of my own, but the one that I’ve held most strongly in my thoughts is a girl that I’ll call Casey.
Back in the late 80s, I taught dance at a performing and visual arts magnet middle school in Raleigh, North Carolina. I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t there just to teach dance. I was there to make a difference in the children’s lives; I just happened to be using dance to do it. I could tell you lots of stories about the children whose lives were transformed by participating in the arts—dance, drama, music, visual art—but that’s another story for another time. This is Casey’s story.
One day, in the middle of the school year, the guidance counselor came to me and said, “There’s a new girl who has moved here to live with her aunt because they discovered that the girl’s father has been sexually abusing her since she was five, and her mother is too ill to care for her. Evidently, she’s taken a lot of dance in the town she comes from, so I enrolled her in your Jazz III class.”
I’d had a lot of kids with challenges in my classes…kids with learning disabilities, kids with behavioral problems, even a hearing-impaired girl who was also undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. I always found a way to manage, to make things work, like making sure that the hearing-impaired child could always see me so she could read my lips and see me count out the beats with my hands. I hadn’t encountered child abuse yet, but I knew that Casey was a 12-year-old girl who loved to dance. If dance was a place where she could feel safe and normal, we’d just go from there and figure it out along the way.
Casey was a good dancer and a good student. In class, she didn’t seem any different than the other kids. Then one morning, I walked into my office to find Casey curled into a ball on the floor, sobbing, petrified because she was sure she’d seen her father’s car outside the school that morning. My heart tore at the sight of her, and I dropped to the floor and held her while she cried, completely at a loss for words, knowing that there were no words that could undo what had been done to her or make it better somehow. I remember her asking if she could stay with me, and I said yes and sent a message to the school office to let them know where she was. I don’t think it was ever confirmed that the car she had seen was actually her father’s, but it was enough like it to send her back into a terror that I could only imagine.
Casey was only in my class that one spring semester, but I’ve thought of her often during the passing years. From time to time, I considered trying to get in touch with her aunt, but there was a part of me that felt awkward about it, so I never did. But I never stopped thinking about her.
Fast forward twenty-plus years…
Three weeks ago, I moved back to Raleigh after being away for a lot of years, and this past weekend, I was at a gathering to celebrate the passing of a director/friend with whom I worked around the same time I was teaching at the middle school. At the reception later, I caught sight of Casey’s aunt (we’ll call her Annie), heading for the door to leave, and, acting on impulse, I dashed through the crowd, calling her name. She turned. I told her my name and said, “I taught Casey….”
I didn’t even get to finish the sentence. Annie’s exclamation proclaimed her recognition, and, pulling me in for a hug, she said, “Casey loved you so much! If you ever have a day when you wonder if you made a difference….” Her voice trailed off, and she hugged me again. She and her husband needed to go, but she told me how to get in touch with her later. She also told me that Casey had had some health problems with her heart over the years, that she was going in for surgery soon, and to please keep her in my thoughts.
I stood and watched her leave, not quite believing that I finally had the answer to my years of wondering. Casey was okay, and she was still in touch with the aunt who had cared so much for her when she’d needed it. Maybe her life hadn’t been perfect, but she was still around (I’d worried that she might not be), and she was loved.
I was fine in the moment, and went back to visiting with my friends, but I’ve gotten choked up every time I’ve tried to relate the story to friends in the days since. Maybe it’s because I have been wondering lately, looking back over my life at what I’ve done and where I’ve been and the choices I’ve made…and wondering what the point of all of it might be.
I’ve believed for a long time that we can change the world one person at a time, through a kind word or a loving gesture or simply being present in someone’s time of need. Deep down, I know that I did and still can make a difference in other people’s lives. However, being human, I go through periods of doubting and second-guessing myself. Annie’s words were a well-timed and much-needed reminder—and a blessing. To know—to know–-that something positive came from my brief encounter with this child whose memory has haunted me for so many years is a gift beyond measure.
Clear confirmations like the one that Casey’s aunt gave me this past weekend don’t come along very often, but if you ever wonder if what you do makes any difference, I think you can safely assume that it does. I believe we’re put in each other’s path for a reason…whether we ever see the result, we can’t help but have an impact. I think we need to keep that in mind when we interact with the people we encounter day to day. There are a lot of Caseys out there, and you never know what you might mean to the one standing in front of you.