Transformational Spaces

On an average day in the middle of last summer a soon-to-be fifth grader walked into our learning center. As is common among first day students, his eyes were down, his defenses were up, and he was palpably not happy to find himself in this situation. His parent said, “See you in a little while,” and left him in our care. We did our standard welcome activities — tour of the center including our prize area where students choose what they will earn for all their hard work, presentation of gifts including a t-shirt and a personalized water cup, and introductions to staff and students. Then, we took him to his instruction area to begin, and he bolted — took off running. He was getting out of there.

We don’t know why. We don’t know what this guy had faced in school settings over the past five or more years. We don’t know what kind of comments he’d heard from instructors — you’re not trying hard enough, this is an easy one, just look at the letters — or what teasing he’d received from other students — why can’t you read, everybody can read, I just read Harry Potter for the third time — or what pressure he was under at home. We just know that his experiences up until we met him had made him leery of entering into proximity with one more group of people who would likely have opinions about him, want him to try stuff, and eventually be disappointed in him.

Not too long ago I was stuck on my couch believing that I would be grieving forever. I didn’t have the strength to venture into new spaces where I might face judgment, misunderstanding, or possibly more pain. If people invited me to do things, I often found excuses — I was busy, tired, or not feeling well. I didn’t have the wherewithal to try — to have conversations, to meet new people, to share my story. If I did happen to agree to go to an event, I often grumbled my whole way there. Why did we agree to come here? It’s going to be terrible. I’m not talking to anyone. How soon can we leave?

It’s not easy to shift from that posture.

When you are convinced that all attempts will lead to failure, you can make failure happen. When you believe that everyone will disappoint you, you can ensure that they will. And when you experience what you expect, your beliefs about how broken, how stuck, how hurt you truly are become more and more etched on the fabric of your soul.

I think that a person needs support to shift away from a posture like that.

When I was feeling that I’d lost all hope, friends showed up. They knew I was on that damn couch, and they persisted. They invited. They texted. They picked me up. They dropped me off. They prayed with me. They cried with me. They cheered every win. They carried me into situations that I was afraid of, and they didn’t leave me alone.

When my student was bent on bolting, his parent sat in our lobby — he needed a partner in his investment, a cheerleader. We were, of course, ready to cheer him every step of the way, but he didn’t yet trust us. We worked hard to build that trust — we celebrated every win, and we were patient in his silences. Eventually, he didn’t need a parent to stay, but he was still reluctant to fully commit. What if it really wouldn’t work and these people, “the experts at teaching reading,” couldn’t help him? What would that mean? If we couldn’t teach him, certainly he was without hope.

A little over two years ago, my husband suggested that we join a small group of people — members of our church — and meet with them once every other week to share journeys, study the Bible, and pray. We’ve been part of many groups like this during our marriage, so I complied. We’ve often found good friendships and community in such groups.

But a couple months later, our lives fell into chaos. If we’d known we were broken before, we suddenly found ourselves face down among all the shattered pieces, grieving uncontrollably. I no longer felt safe going to our small group. I was grumpy and resistant. I went, doing my best to hold it together, but sometimes my snarling gave me away. If our group noticed, I don’t remember them calling me out; they just kept showing up.

Things got tough for my student, too. It wasn’t easy to work our program, hour after hour, day after day. Sometimes his snarling gave him away, too. He refused to work, hurled insults, and often — feeling frustrated — gave up. My staff hung in there, encouraging him, believing for him — You’re going to get this! — when he couldn’t believe for himself.

This past week, I was working with him on his goal of adding the 1000 most common English words to his sight word base when he looked at me with exasperation. “I’m never going to finish this list,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “You’re so close! You’re gonna finish it, trust me!”

Two days later, he took a break from instruction to come find me, “Kristin, I have something to show you.” He handed me the sight word list so that I could see that he was finished. The whole room — students and teachers — stopped what we were doing to applaud him. His face, which for the past six months had often been fixed in a scowl, was beaming. It continued to beam as he read his fifth grade level stories while I stood watching in awe.

Later that day, he took another student aside — a student who was coincidentally experiencing his first day at our learning center — “I know it seems a little hard today,” he said, “but you’re going to do great, just like I did.”

On that same night, exhausted from my day, I came home, swallowed food, and reluctantly got in our car to go to our community group. I literally said “grumble, grumble” as we drove through the freezing February night, but guess what I found when I got there?

I found people who had been consistently showing up, grumbling or not, for over two years. I found them sharing snacks, laughing, listening, asking questions, and leaning in to hear one another’s stories.

We heard about hurts from the past, challenges of the present, and stories of answered prayer.

I saw tears, I heard joy, I found love.

Sometimes, just when we believe that all hope is lost — we’ll never learn to read, we’ll never be finished grieving — we find ourselves in a community that is committed to showing up, waiting us out, cheering us on, and believing for us that hope is not gone. When we find ourselves in these spaces, we should expect transformation because this is where it happens.

Find yourself a way to be part of these transformational spaces.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

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