By Michelle Day
At 23, there are many things I’m not good at. I’m probably the worst dancer in the universe, but I refuse to let that stop me from singing and dancing along to every Taylor Swift song as if my life depends on it while my friends stand in the background, pretending they have no idea who I am. I also still get lost every time I go into Center City by myself; a few weeks ago I spent a good 20 minutes wandering the streets with a (wonderful and patient) group of friends searching for my car because I had no idea where I had parked.
It’s easy for me to laugh at myself when I fail at something I’m terrible at. What I’m learning is that when I fail at something I know in my heart that I was created to do, the bruises left from a small mistake can quickly turn into bitter scars if I give in to the deception of defeat.
Since day one in North Philly, I’ve tried to be honest and open about my experiences. There have been moments filled with unadulterated laughter and joy, and others filled with tears, frustration, and brokenness. Some days I wake up and feel like I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do, and there are other days that I seriously question my sanity and my ability to live up to the challenges placed before me on a daily basis.
When January rolled around I felt rejuvenated and prepared myself as best as I could for a fresh start. I worked hard to focus on taking care of myself so that I could embrace every day to the fullest, and for a few weeks, it seemed to work. My heart felt lighter than it had in years, and I made it an entire month without having a mental or emotional breakdown at school. I thought that if I could just make it through winter—the dark, cold, and weary months—I could do anything.
Then one particularly chaotic day, I couldn’t help a student who needed me. Several others needed help with a project, and in that moment, I chose to help the masses, ignoring the student who was crying and throwing pencils across the room. As an adult, I understand that many people needed help, and in that moment, I couldn’t be in two places at once. But an eleven year old doesn’t understand that. In a moment of panic, all they can see is someone they trust abandoning them.
In an instant, a relationship that had taken months to build was broken. After that day, that particular student refused to work with me. They moved their desk as far away from me as possible in class, said negative things right to my face, and ignored me when I tried to continue to be polite and friendly with them. I tried to stay positive and focus on the other students who I worked well with, but little by little, it started to eat away at me.
A few weeks later, the explosion came. In that moment, every last ounce that I had been fighting to keep together broke, and I ran out of the building sobbing, the door slamming behind me. I acted in a less than graceful way, and the results left me angry, hurt, frustrated, and humiliated.
In the days that followed, I completely questioned whether I really was cut out to do this job, or if I’d made a major mistake in pursuing my dreams. Everything I had worked so hard for had fallen apart and smacked me in the face. For a while I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened. If anything, I wanted to crawl under a rock and escape reality. Instead though, I found myself praying several times a day—for peace, for grace, for the broken relationships, and for God to show His work in this big mess.
Exactly one day after the student returned to school, they saw me in the hallway and asked to speak to me. Not knowing what to expect, I stopped. The eleven year old looked up at me, eyes wide, and said, “I’m sorry for what I did. Can you forgive me?”
Instantly my heart melted, and the anger, hurt, and frustration were swept away. I nodded my head vigorously, offering my hand for a handshake and said that I was sorry too, that I never wanted them to feel abandoned by me, that I wanted them to know that I would always be with them even when it doesn’t feel like it. Then I asked if we could wash the slate clean and start over. The student smiled, whispering, “I would like that.”
Something has changed since the day I decided to let go of my insecurities and mistakes, using them instead to grow into a better educator and a better person. I’m not so worn down by the student who throws pencils at the wall when they don’t get their way. I’m able to smile at the child who screams and yells because they don’t know how to express the hurt and pain they’ve seen, or the joy they so desperately want. I thrive in situations where students need encouragement and kind words, and I’m learning to let the words of others impact me only when they provide me with ways to grow or cause me to laugh and grin from ear to ear. I’m no longer clinging to the idea of perfection or success. Instead, I’m doing my best to use my idiosyncrasies and my gifts to embrace failure and success with grace.
Michelle serves as an Instructional Assistant at St. James School.
Present Over Perfect
By Michelle Day
Earlier this week a student left a note for me in my mailbox. The topic of the note consisted of self-esteem troubles, arguments with peers, and other typical thirteen year old challenges. Towards the end of the note though, this student wrote that they wished that they had “a perfect life like [me].” I let out a sarcastic laugh when I read that sentence.
I’m now two months into my placement, and every day continues to present its own challenges (in addition to dealing with coffee stains). In case you’ve blocked out ages 11-14 from your memory, life for the average middle schooler is a constant battle of juggling school work, sleep, extra curriculars, and of course, socialization. Now add in factors such as poverty, violence, abuse, limited food, lack of sleep, death, sickness, and a public school system that continues to fail into that equation. The world has been against most of these students for their entire lives, and now it’s up to a small group of passionate and determined teachers and staff at a small school with a bright red door to take these students who have been living tragedies and show them that they can make their stories into an epic, if they’re willing to push through the pain and suffering in order to get there.
As a bright eyed and optimistic 22 year old recent graduate, it’s easy for me to dream about a future where underprivileged children overcome the obstacles placed before them and become the world’s best readers and write stories that get turned into movies and go on to graduate college and become doctors, lawyers, and teachers; creators and dreamers and world changers in their own right, all because of what education was able to do for them.
Before moving to Philly over the summer, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to use the phrase “present over perfect” as my motto during my time of service. Throughout my time so far at Saint James, this simple idea of being “present over perfect” has morphed into my mantra, my battle cry, and my whispered prayer on days filled with chaos, spilled coffee, bruised hearts, and tired eyes.
In order for these future world changers to become successful, I now understand that there are going to be days where I feel helpless, where I feel like I’m failing and wish I had stayed in bed. There are times when the future violinist decides he doesn’t want to do his reading homework, and the future doctor gossips about the future actress and the future athlete lets a moment of anger and frustration turn into a half hour long temper tantrum.
Vowing to be present over perfect means that I still get out of bed on days when I feel sick and dread the long day ahead. It means saying “Good Morning” and shaking a student’s hand even when they refuse to say hello back to me and accuse me of not caring. And when a student brings me to the point of tears, it means that I have the courage to walk away, take a deep breath (or a hundred), and try again the next day.
Throughout my time at Saint James School so far, as I focus my time on being present in the moment, I’ve discovered that even with the long hours, sore feet, and stuffy noses, I’m learning how to appreciate the journey in front of me more and more. I still have goals and I still have hopes and dreams, but the stories of the kids who can’t read or who break down on a daily basis, the ones who hate math and refuse to write-they are a part of something bigger, and I get to play a part in this story.
I’ve found that when I take the time to pull the future nurse aside and talk to her and ask if she’s okay, when I eat lunch with the fashion designer and sit next to the artist in class and work besides them on their level, I am able to show them that I care-that their progress each day fills my heart with joy. And as a result, we all move a step closer towards healing and creating a better future filled with real life superheroes and world changers..together
Michelle's Ministry Placement is at St. James School as an Instructional Assistant.