Out of breath, three third-grade girls stormed up to the teacher’s desk after lunch.
“Ms. Harmon, somebody stole things from our backpacks! The zippers were open. Some of our lunch snacks were gone!”
“Tell me exactly what’s missing,” said Ms. Harmon. She had taught at this school for more than 15 years, and endured many a storm. Her auburn, shoulder-length hair and infectious smile were the signature look all students recognized.
She listed the girls’ replies: the snacks were Fritos, Oreos, Peanut Butter Crackers and Fruit Roll-ups. With a sigh, she sent the girls back to class knowing she would miss her favorite student reading session by solving this problem. She handed her class to her assistant and began inspection of the backpacks suspended on hooks in the closet. Halfway through she found three of the missing items lying inside the top of a flowered backpack. The empty wrapper of the fourth item lay beside the others. Finding the student’s name on the inside of the pack, she removed the snacks and returned to her desk. She would deliver the items to their owners. But how to address the culprit?
Jenny was a small, shy girl with long wheat-colored hair and sad eyes behind blue-framed eyeglasses. Ms. Harmon knew only two things about her. Her dad, a loud and burly man, had come to school only once. He informed the teacher he had all he could do to raise three children by himself, and his car was in need of repair. The second thing she remembered was a short story Jenny wrote weeks ago about a woman who lived in the street, in trouble for using illegal drugs.
“What gave you the idea to write this?” Ms. Harmon had asked.
Jenny was silent. Then, looking at the floor, she whispered, “My Mom uses drugs, but she’s in jail now.”
At recess Ms. Harmon asked Jenny to stay a few minutes and help sort materials for their Montessori class.
“Hey, Jenny,” she said, “did you hear about the girls who had things stolen from their backpacks? What do you think?”
The young girl remained silent. She shook her head and stared into space with a tight jaw and restless fingers. In close proximity, Ms. Harmon noticed she wore many layers of clothing, several light jackets over a number of shirts, all giving off the sour aroma of a long-ignored laundry basket.
“Jenny,” she tried once more, “do you know anything about the missing items?” No reply.
Ms. Harmon knelt on the floor, her long skirt flaring on the carpet. From an equal level, she searched her young student’s eyes.
“Look at me, Jenny. Look into my eyes. Those missing items were found inside your backpack.”
A stream of tears began their journey across the young girl’s cheeks.
“Why did you take them?” her teacher asked in a kind voice.
“I was hungry,” she replied through stifled sobs. “Those kids always had good stuff to eat and I didn’t have nothin’. I thought they wouldn’t know it was gone.”
“When was the last time you ate?” the teacher asked.
“Yesterday at lunch,” Jenny answered in a small voice, brushing the tears with the back of her hand.
“I’m not mad at you, Jenny. It’s not your fault you’re hungry. But you can’t steal from someone else. I’m your friend and I’m here to help you. When you’re hungry, come to me. I’ll see that you get food. We have extra food here at the school to help families who need it.”
The teacher wiped the girl’s tears and offered a hug across the shoulder of her fuzzy jacket before she rejoined the class at recess.
For the rest of the afternoon a caring teacher agonized over her perceived failures to this student. The problem was more than a few snacks taken without permission. In a class of 26, it seemed the smartest or most vocal demanded the attention. A shy, hungry little girl had been lost in the crowd. Ms. Harmon had failed to put the pieces together of a household where a domineering, overwhelmed father and a mother incarcerated for drug abuse had robbed Jenny of her childhood.
The school knew that hunger impeded learning, and provided breakfast and lunch to almost 80% of the students. Local churches contributed canned goods and bread for the needy. If families would permit, these items were sent discreetly home, but not all agreed to handouts.
The following day, Ms. Harmon joined Jenny’s lunch table in an effort to reach out.
“So, what happened on the bus today?” she laughed asking the girls. The topic was a guarantee for a lively chat. Her eyes swept across Jenny’s full lunch plate.
But her heart ached for the little girl whose only companions, comfort and meals existed within the school. She taught students to think of her class as family and to become sensitive to each other’s needs. Many of them hated Fridays, dreading an empty or violent weekend at home.
That afternoon she divided her class into two-member learning teams, pairing a strong student with a weaker one. She asked each team to create a gift for their partner by week’s end, a gift in words of appreciation.
“Their notes of thanks to each other were heart-warming,” Ms. Harmon told her principal when he dropped by after school. “I love these kids, and I want them to learn the skills to be successful adults. I want them to make it in the real world and break this cycle of generational poverty.”
Out of breath, three third-grade girls stormed up to the teacher’s desk the following morning.
“We have an idea to help hungry kids! Would you like to hear it?”
Ms. Harmon’s smile was back.