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Dominion Blog

The Impact of One

Posted by Amy Henkle on May 3, 2022 11:59:26 AM
Living in Northern Virginia, I am somewhat used to the transient nature of this area. Our school has many military families and families who work for the state department, so we are used to having students come and go, usually at the end of the year. We are used to goodbyes and feel sad when any family moves. However, Jacob in particular was harder for me to let go of than the rest. As his last day approached in the middle of the third quarter, I was dreading his move, and I started to ponder why that was. 
Besides being all-boy, full of energy at recess and humorous quips in class, Jacob was not like the other students in my class. That was obvious from looking at him. Other students have hidden struggles—dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, self-control, and others—but Jacob is a little person, the polite way of saying he has dwarfism. He was much smaller than my third graders and as a result, had many physical challenges that the other students did not have. 
When I met Jacob over the summer as I was setting up my classroom, I went to work to make the classroom more accessible for him by intentionally placing frequently used books on lower shelves, placing his desk in the front row closest to the door for easy access, and hunting down a kindergarten chair for him. And, I prayed that the students would not tease their new classmate who would look different. 
Well, all of these things were helpful and needed, but I did not need to worry about the students teasing Jacob. A few students had met him ahead of time at our school’s summer camps, and they were excited about their new friend. The rest met him on the first day and were fast friends with their new classmate. As we settled into the school year, I continued to make adjustments to help Jacob. I realized that walking in line was tricky. I could not see Jacob if he was far back in line, and he could not keep up with the class, so I made him the line leader, and we learned to walk more slowly. Sometimes Jacob would fall as we walked—not unusual for someone with dwarfism, his mother informed me. The students learned to stop and make sure he was okay, even the ones whose tendency is to rush along, reluctant to be held up. I also realized that transitions between subjects were hard for Jacob. His shorter arms made it difficult to open his desk and switch out multiple school books and supplies. I solved this problem by seating a student beside him who was especially gifted and patient at helping him know what he needed to get out. Jacob also had some hearing loss in both of his ears, and this desk mate helped him to hear directions or refocus when he got distracted. For my part, I learned to repeat myself and make sure he was looking at me when I gave directions so that he could hear me. One student noticed when Jacob could not reach the tissue box and hopped up to help him. Another always sharpened his pencil at the classroom sharpener that was mounted high up and could not be moved. 
Most of all, we loved Jacob. He was so funny and often had a clever quip during lessons. Laughter was a frequent part of our classroom life. We never wondered what Jacob was thinking, and we knew all about the things he loved—Minecraft, The Hobbit, sword fighting with sticks at recess, drawings of battles, and most of all our classroom hamster, Hamwise Gamgee. Jacob LOVED Hamwise. 
As Jacob’s last day approached, I dreaded it. Soon the day came. The students made cards, and we had a party. The next morning, I let him hold Hamwise as long as he wanted and after lunch, he departed. We hugged him, and I cried. After he left, the students asked why I was crying, and I told them that I missed Jacob, and I was really sad he was moving away, but I did not articulate the myriad of reasons why. 
In the coming days, I saw many notes on the children’s work… “first day without Jacob, I miss him” .... “I miss Jacob” ..... “I’m sad Jacob isn’t here.” At different times throughout the day, someone would mention that Jacob would really like such and such that we were doing, and we would all agree. Gradually the notes started to wane a bit. Then one day I got a call from a mom who said her daughter was coming home and weeping long and loud. We determined that she was grieving over Jacob’s move and that it was time for a class talk about grief. 
I started by asking the children if they ever think about Jacob leaving and just want to cry, even at the weirdest moments. Lots of nods all around. I explained that we were experiencing grief and what they were feeling was completely expected and normal. They might feel like crying, they might feel angry, and they might feel these things at random, unexpected moments. Then we talked all about Jacob. We talked about how God had created his body in a special way, and though we had never addressed it, he was handicapped by his dwarfism. I told them how I was so proud of them in the way they never, ever teased him, but always treated him like any other member of our class. I told them how big their hearts were and how selfless because of Jacob. Perhaps without realizing it, they had learned to look out for his needs above their own during the time he was in our class. They learned to walk more slowly, to stop and check on him when he fell, and to be his partner in a three-legged race even though they were unlikely to win. They learned to notice when he needed a tissue, when he needed a sharpened pencil, and when he needed help getting out supplies. They clapped and cheered for him when he got a rare true grit award for his lion-hearted performance in P.E. despite his physical challenges, and no one whined that they did not receive an award, too. Over the past seven months, they had learned to look out for their classmate and love him well, so it made sense that we were grieving such a dear friend and that his move left a hole in our hearts. And, it made sense that there was a tiny bit of a loss of purpose in some parts of their school day.
As I pointed out these things, the students wanted to share memories of our favorite times with Jacob and some cried. It was good for us. I still see notes from time to time about missing Jacob on the corner of a grammar page or a spelling sheet, and I know that it helped to talk about grief as a class. Now we are working on writing notes to Jacob, and we are compiling a class book to send him. We still miss him, but we are starting to be okay with it, and we are thankful for the big impact that Jacob had on our third grade class. Selflessness is something that we grownups can talk and talk about, but Jacob gave the children a chance to practice it on a daily basis, and it was beautiful to see. As they move on from third grade in the coming weeks, I hope this lesson and practice of seeing and caring for others will stick with them for the rest of their lives.