I’m so happy to tell you that following excerpt of the story you are about to read has recently been accepted for publication in Guideposts magazine and will appear in the magazine sometime in the summer of 2013! The editors are very generously allowing me to share it with you all first on my blog for a short time.
To answer a few questions that I inevitably get after I give the in demand Pink Elephants speech version of this story…First, yes this is a true story, with the exception of Grace’s name, which has been changed at the request of her family. I wrote this story on May 11th, 2012.
Second, in the past there has been some confusion about what this story is actually called. I always refer to this story as my Pink Elephant story. Everyone else seems to refers to it as my Live Like That story. In all actuality, it’s Grace’s Story.
Third, everyone always wants to know if the Sidewalk Prophets like my story. That question I can’t answer, although I can say that I personally gave them a copy of the story and thanked them for such a great song before I started sharing Grace’s story with the world. The ‘Live Like That’ song has probably sparked hundreds if not thousands of amazing stories, most of which I’m sure are even more amazing than the one that follows.
Finally, I just want to say a quick thank you to my Gracie girl who inspired this story. I’m so honored and blessed to have watched you grow and to be able to call myself your teacher. A special thank you goes out to your family as well for allowing me to share your story.
I drew back the curtains on the patio doors at 8:30 a.m. on another Friday and was greeted by a beautiful, sunshiny April morning. Smiling at the thought of spending some quality time outside later with the kids, I took a sip of the triple berry smoothie we had made this morning together for breakfast. Music was playing softly in the background, and the children were all playing purposefully.
Today was shaping up to be a really great day!
Turning around, I did a quick sweep of the classroom, my eyes looking for any imminent disasters or potentially missing children. I first spotted Norah, Jesse and Kendra in the log cabin playhouse that is set up in the corner of our classroom. I walked over and knelt down in front of the window, pulling open the green plastic shutters. “Good morning, friends,” I said cheerfully. “What’s going on today?” I ask.
“We got a customer!” 2 year old Norah yells excitedly, jumping up and down, while Jesse and Kendra run over to the window to greet me. “You want some frozen yum-yum?” she asks, shoving an orange bowl shaped like an ice cream cone with a similarly shaped spoon out the window at me.
“Well, I’d love some,” I reply, taking the bowl and spoon from her. “What’s the Yum-Yum special of the day?” I ask. In our hometown of Fort Wayne, Yum-Yum’s is the popular local frozen yogurt shop that sells a variety of different flavors and over a hundred different toppings to choose from.
While the topping bar is nowhere near as healthy as, let’s say, a salad bar, and probably dramatically reduces any health benefits the frozen yogurt may provide, it sure is appealing to the preschoolers I work with!
“Broccoli,” says 4 year old Kendra, laughing hysterically.
“We don’t got no broccoli,” says Norah, hands on her hips. “Nobody’s gonna buy that!” she says.
“How about a cup of chocolate/vanilla swirl?” I ask. “And don’t forget the gummy bears!” I add as an afterthought. Norah takes the bowl and spoon back from me, turning away with Kendra to discuss how many pretend gummy bears are too many pretend gummy bears to put on teacher’s frozen yum-yum.
One year old Jesse comes over to the window and stands on his tippy toes so his chin is just over the window of the log cabin. He reaches his pudgy little arms out through the window while giving me a big smile. Big spaces of pink gum still show where his teeth haven’t quite come through yet, and his wide blue eyes twinkle as he says, “Bethie give hug!”
I reach out and pull him through the window, giving him a big hug. “You’re going to be such a heartbreaker when you grow up, Jesse,” I say, giving him another hug and nuzzling the top of his head with my nose.
Just then, Norah and Kendra reappear at the window with my bowl of frozen pretend yum-yum. Kendra hands it to me as Norah says, “We decided you don’t get any gummy bears. Sugar isn’t any good for your teeth.”
I chuckle to myself and say, “Good point. Thank you, ladies. Have a good morning!” I stand up and turn around, smiling at my co-teacher,Tara, who is on the other side of the room preparing materials for an activity later in the morning.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice six year old Grace sitting on a bean bag chair in the reading corner all alone, elbows on knees, cheeks in hands, brow furrowed and deeply in thought. I grab a bean bag chair from the stack in the corner and sit down next to her. Reaching into my pocket for change, I say “Penny for your thoughts?”
Grace looks over at me and gives me a weak smile. “Miss Beth, can I ask you a question about something that is bothering me?”
I nod, patting her on the shoulder. “Of course, always.What’s on your mind?”
“Do you hear this song?” she asks, referring to the music playing in the background. I pause for a moment, feeling like I’m on the game show ‘Name That Tune.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t take me too long to recognize the music.
The song that’s playing is ‘Live Like That’ by the Christian music group Sidewalk Prophets.
“Yes,” I say, beginning to wonder exactly where this conversation is headed.
Grace taps her fingers against the side of her face and looks at me as if she’s sizing me up, trying to decide if she should pose the rest of her question to me or not. I smile encouragingly. Very seriously, Grace says “When I hear this song, it makes me feel happy in my heart and makes me want to live like that, too. But I don’t know what that is. Live like what? Do you know what that is, Miss Beth?”
I draw in a deep breath, very aware that what Grace has experienced in her own life is not what the song is referring to.
To date, Grace’s life has been far from easy. Her life has been filled with interactions with Child Protective Services and rejection by the parents who were supposed to love and cherish her. She’s experienced the selfish death of a parent and the repeated loss of divorce. Grace has half-siblings she’s never met, and ex step-siblings she loves but will never see again. By the age of 3, she had lost both of her grandparents, the people who loved her unconditionally and provided her with a sense of stability for much of her life, to death.
When your first six years of life are a rollercoaster ride of rejection, repeated loss, suicide, death, broken families, and divorce, understanding the concept of living a life like that might be a stretch.
I look at Grace leaning into me and see that she is looking up at me with those wide, doe brown eyes of hers, expecting me to be able to help her make sense something that I’m not completely sure I’m capable of explaining to a six year old even in the best of circumstances.
I begin to feel a strange mix of emotions stirring inside me.
While I’m happy that this sweet, serious little girl so much like myself at her age would trust me with questions weighing heavy on her heart, I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be tackling such deep, philosophical questions before 9 am on a Friday morning sans coffee.
‘You’re just a preschool teacher,’ I say to myself, trying to come up with an acceptable out. ‘Stick with what you know, like ABCs and 123s. Leave the important life lessons for someone else.’ Then, with a glance to my left, I see Grace’s expectant face, patiently waiting for my reply. It is then that I realize that aside from Tara, I am probably the only person in her life that personally knows the answer to her question, ‘What does it mean to live a life like that?’, and who, with the help of God, attempts to live a life like that every day.
I realize that I need to tell Grace what it means to live like that not just for her sake, but for my own sake as well. Beginning simply, I say to her, “Well, it means to live a life like Jesus.”
“Oh,” says Grace dejectedly, her body sinking into the bean bag chair. “I can’t do that,” she says, burying her face back in her hands, tears forming in the corner of her eyes.
“What do you mean, you can’t do that?” I ask, puzzled .
“My Dad won’t let me move that far away,” she replies.
“Oh, no, no, no. That’s NOT what it means.” I say, trying to hide my smile while I pause for a moment to silently ask God to help me find away to explain this to her that she can understand.
In a moment of brilliance I say, “You know what? I think I know where we can find the answer to your question!”
“You do?” Grace asks, a glimmer of hope rising up in her voice.
“I do!” I reply with conviction as I stand up and toss my bean bag chair into the corner. I stretch out my hand to her, take her small hand in mine, and say, “Come with me.”
Together we walk over to where I keep my bag and I pull out my trusty blue leather Bible with silver edged pages. The cover is worn and soft, and the place on the front where my name was once imprinted has rubbed away. I hand it to her, and opening it up she says, “This is your Bible!”
“Yes it is,” I reply. “In the Bible, a great man of God named Paul wrote many books about how to live like Jesus, or like the song says, how to live like that. Would you like me to read some of what he wrote to you?” I ask.
“Yes please!” Grace responded, looking intently at my Bible.
I turned in the Bible to the 12th chapter of the book of Romans, verse 2, which is one of my favorite verses in book of Romans and quickly read it to myself: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I point out the verse on the page to Grace and say, “It says ‘Don’t copy the behaviors of the world, but be a new and different person witha fresh newness in all you do and all you think’. Paul is telling us that we should try very hard to be good, kind, helpful, and patient so that when other people around us see us they will notice that we are different.”
Grace’s eyes brighten. “So Paul wants us to be like a pink elephant at the zoo!”
“Say what?” I ask, thoroughly confused, thinking I must have heard her wrong.
“Pretend like we go to the zoo to see the elephants and all of the elephants are gray, but one was pink. We would notice the pink elephant for sure. Paul wants us to be different than everybody else so we will standout like a pink elephant for Jesus!”
“Yes, that’s exactly right!” I say, somewhat hesitantly, mulling over what she has said, kind of struck by her unique understanding of the verse I had read.
“What else does Paul say?” Grace asks, turning some pages in the Bible.
“Well,” I say, flipping to a verse I had read in Bible study yesterday, “Here in Phillippians 2:14-15 it says ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.’ Did you know that I love to go out and night and look up at the night sky because stars are so bright and beautiful? Well, here Paul is telling us that we should be like those bright stars by showing others how to behave. We should be a good example for others to follow. People should see Jesus’ light shining through us.”
I looked at Grace where she sat, and I could see the light streaming from her face as she listened with her trademark intensity to my words. I continued, “You know, Jesus stood out in a crowd. He was like a star lighting up the sky. Thousands of people followed him around because they could see that he was different. He cared about people and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right. Jesus would stop and talk to people thatother people would not talk to. Do you remember Zaccheus the tax collector?”
“Yep, he was a wee little man!” Grace said, quoting a line from the popular children’s song about Zaccheus, the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree.
“Indeed,” I reply, laughing. “He was also a tax collector,which meant that no one liked him. Jesus didn’t care about that, though! He even went to his house for dinner.”
“Zaccheus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today! For I’m going to your house today!” Grace sings.
I look at Grace, and see that she is watching me with her thoughtful, big brown eyes. Her hands are folded in her lap and her legs are folded criss-cross applesauced in front of her. The long chocolate brown braids I had weaved in her hair in the early hours of the morning are draped over her shoulders, and her face is relaxed and peaceful. Her demeanor is changed from earlier and I know that I have answered her question about what it means to‘live like that’.
I smile, thinking to myself about the song that sparked this conversation and begin to think about how lucky I am to be able to live like that in my daily life as a teacher to so many unique and wonderful children like Grace.
As a teacher, there are things that I adore about all of the children I care for. Norah is tomboy awesome. How can you not love a girl who refuses to wear girl underwear because “boy underwear is better because it has superheroes on it?” Rokke is a sports nut, and will only sleep with abasketball, baseball bat or football…forget the stuffed animals. Addison is a girly girl. I can’t remember ever seeing her dressed in anything besides a tutu. Kendra is a future teacher. One of my favorite things is to watch her line up all the dolls and pretend to read to them, just like I do with my students, only Kendra always holds the books upside down. Austin is Mr. Fix it. I truly believe he can fix anything. When he was two, he fixed my broken CD player and taught me how to use my iPad. Alex is the future rock star. He makes up great songs, plays the guitar and the drums and prefers to write with a sharpie over anything else.
Then, there is Grace, and she is…well, she’s just this gem of a girl.
She’s the pink elephant in a zoo full of beautiful, albeit, gray ones.
When one of her classmates falls down, she’s the first one by their side to help them back up again. If it’s someone’s birthday, she’s organizing the decorations and leading the chorus in singing ‘Happy Birthday’. If you knock over your paint cup during art and spill all your paint, she’ll gladly give you hers. When it’s time to clean up the room to go outside, she’s busy cleaning up with a smile on her face and a song in her heart while everyone else is busy grumbling and complaining. If another child hurts her feelings or pulls her hair, she is quick to forgive and slow to act in anger.
It is my sincerest prayer that if I am ever blessed with a daughter, she will be just like Grace because she is one of the kindest, most gentle and loving little girls I have ever had the honor of teaching.
This past February, however, I wasn’t thinking about being blessed with a daughter in the slightest. On Superbowl Sunday of all days, I succumbed to the worst headache of my life, which ended up not being a headache at all, but a stroke.
About ten minutes into my two week stay at the hospital, I was desperate to go home; I missed my work, my life, my normal. To be honest, I was terrified and I was angry that I might never have my work, my life, my normal again. I didn’t dare to think about what the future might or might not hold. If I could just go home, I reasoned, this whole nightmare would be over and I could pretend that it had never happened.
As I lay there in my hospital bed, struggling with memory loss, weakness, and a brain that at times felt like Jell-o, one verse from the Bible repeatedly came to me from the book of Proverbs, chapter 3 verses 5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Since this Bible verse seemed to be one of the few things I could reliably remember at the time, I knew I should probably heed what it said; so I began to pray not just for lightning quick healing, but for unfailing hope that good things would come out of this experience. I was very fortunate that my prayers for quick healing were answered. God also answered my secondary prayer by literally pouring down love on me from my friends and students, my student’s families and co-workers, my family and church family, and even those I met while in the hospital.
Yet, of all of the people who cared for me with their love, prayers and kindness during this time, I have to say that a little six year old girl with chocolate colored braids and doe brown eyes touched my heart the most.
Every day that I was in hospital, my best friend Sarah came to visit me, and every day, Sarah had a special delivery for me from Grace. Some days, it was a card, some days, it was a picture she had drawn. Once, she had a video of Grace singing “You Can’t Keep Jesus’ Love in a Box” for me, and another time Grace had written a story about the two of us. In the story, we both marry handsome princes, live in a castle, have pet unicorns and live happily ever after.
Of course, the story was probably my personal favorite!
I delighted in these little tokens from Grace, because I could see she had poured her heart into every little detail; through her gifts,this sweet little six year old girl told me the very things I needed to hear at a time in my life when I needed to hear them the most: You are missed. You are loved. You are not forgotten.
Grace didn’t know it, but she was already living a life like that. At least, to me she was.
How she knew to live a life like that, I’ll never know. For most of her life, she has witnessed exactly the opposite messages in her own family, by those who are supposed to love and protect her. How many times has she heard messages like you’re not important to me? I don’t love you enough to keep you. You’re not important enough for me to stay. I won’t miss you. Leave me alone. She never loved you. Messages like these, even when heard just once, cut deeply and last a lifetime.
For a child so young, it is unthinkable to me that she has experienced such cruelty in her lifetime, yet remains so tender hearted, gentle and good.
Thinking about the sadness and pain that Grace has experienced in her life weighs heavily upon my heart as I notice that a few ofthe children have started to dance. I pause to listen and hear the chorus of another one of Sidewalk Prophets songs, ‘Love Love Love’.
‘That’s it’, I think to myself. ‘Love! Grace may have experienced tragedy and loss in her life, but she has also been loved deeply by her grandparents and… by me! Doesn’t it say in Proverbs ‘hatred stirs up quarrels, but love covers up for all offenses?’ Love is the answer!’
This thought gives me a rush of hope, because in this messed up world that we live in there are many other children out there like Grace who are living in broken apart, ravaged families. The idea that the love and prayers of just a few people can turn a child in wasteland of elephants into a shiny bright, show stopping pink elephant amazes me.
While the problems of this world are large, the solution is simple: what we need is more love, and more pink elephants.
I closed the Bible on my lap, and put my arm around Grace.“Guess what I was just thinking about?” I asked.
Grace shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “Don’t know.”
“Do you remember when I was in the hospital?”
“You don’t have to go back do you?” she asks.
“No, no,” I reply. “I was thinking about all the nice things you sent me when I was in the hospital. Did you realize you were being a pink elephant to me when I was in the hospital? So…I don’t think you need to worry about what it means to live like that. You’re already living like that, Grace,” I said softly, giving her a hug.
Grace looks up at me, her beautiful brown eyes meeting my blue green ones. She smiles and says, “I think you already know, too. You’re the one who showed me how to be a pink elephant!”
My eyes began to fill with tears for this precious, precious child who has taught me so much more about living a life filled with love, kindness, and courage, and how to truly shine for Jesus, than I could have ever taught her. “Oh Grace, I think we’ve both learned so much from each other,” I say, giving her another hug.
Grace stands up and points at the other children who are dancing and laughing in the middle of the room. “Let’s dance, Miss Beth!” she says, smiling and pulling me towards the dancing as she sings “You can see it in the stars above…”
I smile and give her a twirl, laughing and joining in the singing of the lyrics to another one of the Sidewalk Prophets songs, Love, Love, Love: “and when you think you can’t, you can with love!”