There once was a girl named Riley, and I wish I could tell you this was a happy story, but, in fact, it is not. Still, sometimes it’s the sad stories that need to be told … whether or not we feel like reading them. I urge you to read on, however, for Riley, and every child whose story is too much like hers.
In utter honesty, this tale might not be mine to tell, but somehow, through grace, I now feel that I can’t untangle myself from the words that are shouting through my conscious to be written. And so …
Once upon a “typical” day, there was a class of fourth grade students, and among them, was a nine-year-old girl who was anything but typical (and they were constantly reminding her of it). Riley was not “normal,” she was unique, she was special, but sometimes, even the world of children doesn’t want to accept exceptional. They want “normal,” they want “average,” and blessed with the challenge of Autism, Riley could not give them what they wanted.
Tormented on a daily basis by the most “creative” of out casters, loneliness was a state-of-being this precious girl came to know intimately. Often shunned in line, scattered away from at gathering times, and solitary lunch seating were just a few of the many ways Riley began to lose the fragile sense-of-self it took her years and years to build. Like a glass-blown masterpiece, beautiful and fragile, her gentle smiles fractured into guarded shards. Communication for a child with any form of Autism is a challenge, but one who has been relentlessly extricated for a year? It became nearly impossible. How does a child of nine articulate why and how she was chosen to be an object of scorn?
There is an anonymous quote that says, “Silence is the most powerful scream,” and about a month ago, that silence became deafening. Riley sat alone at lunch, as she had for the past innumerable months, but someone “heard” her. A teacher. In desperation after learning the truth, she asked some friends to help guard Riley in our hearts through prayer. And this is where I come in.
I have long agreed with Sydney Smith who shared that, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little — do what you can.” I knew that hearing a part of Riley’s story didn’t necessarily mean I was to become a chapter, but I also couldn’t refuse the opportunity to do something. The day after hearing Riley’s tragedy, I brought the news to my eighth graders. I thought they could relate, maybe offer some “how to get through” solutions for me … but even I (in my ever-wishful-thinking, optimistic outlook) couldn’t have anticipated what would happen next. The thing is, not many people trust teenagers to care about anything more than themselves, but that is particularly the reason they have the ability to do so. They are not a tapped out market … they are just waiting for someone to need them, the way we all are. And Riley did.
What transpired in the next weeks was an adoption of sorts. My 65+ students: wrote cards, send video diaries, created poems, made gifts, composed songs, and recorded digital conversations for this very lost little girl. I told them that I know they might never meet her, that we were schools and districts away, but that they were making a difference just the same. Even the shyest of my students had much to say and spoke in the cause of #TeamRiley as we “dubbed” ourselves. I think the greatest way to translate Riley’s reaction, was through a text from her mother I received a week ago.
“I have tried to write you emails … cards … texts, a million times over the last few weeks, and I just couldn’t. How could I possibly thank those that have breathed life back into my child who, just weeks ago, was dying … and I didn’t know it. Your heart for her has blown her away. Your students’ hearts and words have changed her. This year we watched as she shrank back into herself after years of begin able to be engaged and silly and joyful. We though it was just a stage, or part of the Autism as she was trying to cope with being more social … but it wasn’t.
“Her eyes are bright again! Her smile is real again! Her heart is not hiding inside her – tucked away in her room.”
Reading that message to my students … seeing them cry as they realized that THEY SAVED SOMEONE’S LIFE … there could be no greater lesson, no more significant memory in their year than this. As you can imagine, my motivated world-changers were not ready to be done making a statement. So, on April 10th, Riley is going to be coming to my middle school for a lunch date with 65 eighth graders who are ready to love her larger than she’s ever been hurt. They cannot wait to overwhelm her with their support as we watch a culmination of the communication we have had back and forth.
The thing of it is … we are blessed in Riley’s story. We are truly, immeasurably gratified in the fact that she will NOT ever face another day un-fought for. The truth is exposed and light will not be quenched by darkness anymore. This is not to say that the road to righteousness is going to be smooth or easy. My brave friend who started all of this has told me of the tribulations still facing her day in and day out of school, but there is no longer a secret threatening to choke the life out of Riley’s childhood. But how many live this story?
Whether the bully, the bullied, or the bystander who turns a blind eye … these grim tales will not be eradicated without voice. So for every child in your world, whether they are blessed to be “ordinary” or “extraordinary,” find out what their days are really like. Find out what category they have become subject to, and BE THERE as they evolve into the strong, independent, advocate they were meant to grow up into.
“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” Acts 18:9
And please, speak LOUDLY,