Many years ago I taught in a school where probably 75% of our students lived at or below the poverty level. These kids knew what abuse was, and they knew how to become invisible when situations became difficult for them. Sam was one of those kids. He always wore a smile to music class, but if he was unsure or uncomfortable with a task, it was like he disappeared. I simply didn’t notice him. (I wasn’t the only teacher who experienced this, so it wasn’t that I was blind.)
In an effort to bring out the best in my students, because some of them had little use for education, I copied off yellow paper circles that I called bright spots. If I noticed a particular action or behavior that I thought deserved merit, I wrote the student’s name and what I noticed on the circle and gave it to the student. Sometimes I wrote these after school, so I slipped the bright spot in the student’s music folder for him to find when he came to class the next time.
When we cleaned out our folders on the last day of class, Sam pulled out all his bright spots and stuffed them in his pocket. “I’m keeping these,” he told me.
I often wondered just what those bright spots meant to Sam. I think I know now, and I wish I had back then. Sam needed to be noticed. He needed to know that his being there had made a difference. Life hadn’t been kind to him, and it probably still isn’t, but Sam needed to know that there was someone out there who cared enough to notice him.
I think about the people who struggle in life. Most of them are quite good at coping, figuring out how to survive, and just getting by. But they are afraid of people who are different from them, and people who have fewer problems in life scare them. I have learned that it is not a good idea to do things for people, unless they specifically ask me to. If I feel action is needed, it is best to act with them. But I have discovered that the very best gift I can give people who struggle is to notice them, to speak with them, to spend time with them, to eat with them, and to treat them as an equal human being. In other words, I become a bright spot to them.
I wonder, how many problems could we help solve not by trying to solve the problem, but instead by empowering people with our gift of attention? What if we believed in them enough that they believe in themselves? And if they believe in themselves, would they be more willing to risk finding permanent solutions to the struggles that are their way of life? I wonder…