“Did you take it home with you last night?”
“I don’t know,” and another shrug.
“Is it in your desk?”
“I don’t know.” Foot shuffling.
“Well go check,” I huff.
He returns empty-handed.
“Could it be in your schoolbag? Did you bring your bag today?”
He looks at the ceiling. “I think so, hold up…” he trots to his coat hook, almost tripping on his jeans with shredded bottoms.
“Here’s my bag!” he shouts.
“Ok, let me see…” I say as I take his bag from him, half annoyed, half relieved.
“This is the 3rd math book I‘ve made for you, I really didn’t want to have to make another one,” as I shuffle through a bag full of dirty papers and broken crayons.
“Jamir, what is all this stuff in your book bag? Why don’t you throw these old papers away?” I ask, disgusted.
“What’s this paper from September doing in here? The permission slip from our December field trip! Used tissues? This stuff needs to go in the trash can.”
I pull out a soggy banana, 2 chicken nuggets wrapped in a napkin and a crushed milk box from the bottom of his bag.
“I this food old too? Didn’t you eat your lunch?”
“Then what’s this food doing in here?! Gross! Get the trash can…”
“NO! That’s for Shamira! Don’t throw it out!" he shouts at me in a panic. His first grade eyes were full of hysteria. His loud shout snapped me out of my state of annoyance. I looked his small face so distraught, and then in slow motion, his words replayed in my head. I began to process… Shamira was his little sister, why? Wait. What is he saying?
And then, my arrogance slapped me in the face, like a wrecking ball in the gut.
This little boy, who I thought of as the kid “who never had his homework done,” who always said “I don’t know”, knew something far more important than where his math homework book was or whatever other trivial thing I was hounding him about.
He knew hunger. He knew his sister needed the free lunch he was getting as much as he did. And he took half of what was given to him, to give to her.
Suddenly, shame washed me over like a title wave. I felt like I could’ve sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I no longer cared that his homework wasn’t done. Ever.
Now I knew why.
“You take your lunch home for your little sister?” I utter.
“Uh, huh. She’s 3.” And a nod. “Every day I bring her food from school” said slowly. He looked at me with hesitation and distrust, “Am I in trouble?”
My God. I lived with this child 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 7 months and I never knew he was malnourished and almost starved.
“No Honey, you’re not in trouble. Go outside for recess and play.”
A bright ear to ear smile flashed across his face and he turned and ran for the door, his skinny body, barely able to open it.
“Thanks Mrs. Foti,” he said as he headed toward the playground, where he was allowed to be 7, even if for only 20 minutes. What are you thanking me for, I asked myself, sitting in disbelief and shame. What have I done?
That question has never left me. Nor has the image of Jamir on the day that he taught me that lesson.
What have I done to love my brother? To feed him? To clothe him? To give him safety, peace. To embrace him in his suffering and not ignore it?
Things got real for me that day. I saw my students much differently. They were my children first, my students next. We clothed, fed, gave nap time for those who didn’t sleep and took care of their basic needs first. After that, we did reading and math and maybe went over “homework.” And it changed the atmosphere. They grew. They learned. They were happier. They were taken care of. They were safe. They were loved.
Thank you, Jamir, for being an example of God.
Thank you for teaching me.
Brianna Foti is the Education and Activities Coordinator at St. Christopher's Church in Gladwyne, PA.