Listen. I have to tell you this story. It’s one you may not have heard before, except in bits and pieces. And they are all important pieces, believe me, but they will make more sense once you see the whole picture.
The toddler came through the main entrance of the apartment complex and out into the bright sunshine with her mother following closely behind.
It was a cool day and a light snow had fallen earlier that morning. At the moment, standing on the sidewalk outside the complex, I had a feeling run through me similar to the one I experienced when the older siblings had first come to live with us: this could be the last time this little one sees her mother. This premonition had come true last time. I was hoping it wouldn’t turn out the same this time.
Upon seeing us waiting, the child’s mother began crying instantly. This was not what she wanted, but knew there was no other way.
The baby had to eat.
Without money, she had to find a way to put food on her table. Leaving the toddler with us was the only way she could see. I agreed, though it would not be easy. I reached my arms out to this little person who had only seen me on two other occasions. She immediately came to me and allowed me to pick her up.
Goodbyes happened quickly and mom kissed her baby on the face. I gave the mother a hug and promised her we would take good care of the child. She nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
I thought back to the courthouse scene when the judge handed her first four children over to my wife and I. Mom asked me if it was all right, asked me if we would do this for her.
Though the judge had just severed all legal ties and rights to her children, it was mom’s last effort at some sense of control. I did the only thing I could – I assured her it was the right thing to do and, with tears streaming down my own cheeks, assured her that they were in good hands.
My thoughts turned to my work at the high school. Selfishly, I knew I would not be able to take any days off to help with the demands an added child can sometimes require. My wife must have been reading my mind, knew the troubled look on my furrowed brow as we drove back home with our little bundle strapped into the back. She quickly asserted that this time would be different. This time we would elicit the help of others.
The number of people living in our home, the number of humans that I felt personally responsible for, had just grown to 9. We had become the size of a favorite TV family from the 70’s.
A former superintendent I worked for and admired would always tell the story of how she finished her dissertation under extreme circumstances. She had recently lost her daughter, and shortly thereafter been promoted to her first superintendency.
I never knew how she managed, and to this day still cannot fathom how one continues on after having experienced loss of this magnitude. Nevertheless, she did finish the requirements of her doctoral degree, and she did step into the role of superintendent. She did so with dedicated intention, even though there was a quiet storm brewing just underneath the entire time. It drove her forward and led her to doors she didn’t know were there; doors that might not otherwise have opened.
This is what I believe to be true: in life we are given only that which we are able to handle. We are given no more and no less, but it is up to each of us – as individuals – to figure out how to manage the load. We have still not figured out quite how to manage that which we have been given, but each day we get better, and each day we learn something new that is able to help us along the way.
My superintendent learned along the way, as well. She never missed an opportunity to talk about her daughter and those dark days when she first came to the realization that she would have to carry on without her. Talking about her memory helped her cope, helped her manage the pain of loss, and showed her that there was a way to carry on and still have a good, productive life.
The four siblings were waiting at the door when we pulled up with their little sister. We had told them in advance. Any type of change can send them into a flurry of uncontrollable excitement that doesn’t always end well, so we always try and prepare for anything that will look different in their lives.
This was a big difference, especially given we had no idea how long little sister would be with us. It was Christmas time, so we were hopeful that mom would want her back at least by the Big Day. We have also learned not to have too many expectations in this fluid world of foster care, emergency placements, and adoption, so we were prepared for anything.
As my former superintendent learned the hard way, life has a way of throwing you curveballs. It can be unpredictable, unreliable, but unmistakably steadfast in its resolve to show up every day ready for however you want to receive it.
We were bound and determined to face it head on and stare down any challenges it may have in store for us.
If you are a school leader, or an educator in any capacity, you’re looking at me and shaking your head right now. And you would be right.