Grace’s school had their science fair yesterday. I’ve explained before that Grace attends an intermediate district that exists to serve the needs of students who could not be adequately taught in their home district. The facility is absolutely gorgeous, and every staff member, Miss Lydia aside, seems to love their job and each student. I’ve never seen a group of teachers, social workers, para-professionals, and school nurses more committed to the well-being of a population of students.
Eadaoin, Milly, and I went to the science fair, and Grace was so excited to see us. It was held during the day so my husband was unable to join us. Grace did her project on neuroplasticity. She sculpted a neuron and explained what every part of the neuron did in the brain. I watched her as she stood by her project and answered everyone’s questions. She looked very proud, and I thought that it was oddly wonderful that she chose neuroplasticity as the subject of her science fair project. Some of the latest research on schizophrenia is showing that neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to repair itself, may be an avenue for treatment.
I wandered around the gym taking a look at what the other participants had done. Milly was particularly impressed by the baking soda/vinegar volcano. I listened to the kids explain their hypotheses and how they followed the scientific method. Many of the kids have cognitive impairments or emotional and behavioral disturbances so it requires a lot of patience, acceptance, and compassion to interact with each of them. Some of these kids are suspicious of adults. Some of them are overly friendly and have poor boundaries. Some refused to look at me altogether, but they did a project. They showed up. I thought I should at least look at what they did.
In the middle of looking at all the projects a boy caught my eye. He was sitting alone by his project. I walked over to look at his display. He had chosen Greek mythology as his topic. Initially, I thought that his topic wasn’t very scientific at all. I know, I know. I was judging this boy’s project. That was just the first thought that came to mind. I let it flow out of my mind as easily as it flowed in. I read his board. It was hand-written in pencil, and it was messy. There it was again. My “judgey” inner critic. I looked at his display to see his name. His name was Jake. “Hi, Jake. Nice job.” He just looked at me. Suddenly, a teacher was right by my side. She grabbed my arm and said with emphasis, “Why don’t you ask Jake a few questions about his project. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?” She then smiled at me showing all her teeth. Right. Got it.
“Jake, I see you’ve chosen Greek mythology as the topic of your science fair project. Why did you choose that?”
He lit up. “Oh, well, I really loved the Percy Jackson novels. Have you heard of Percy Jackson? You know, they were written by Rick Riordan, and they are about demigods who are the kids of the Greek gods. So, I wanted to know more about the Greek myths since I didn’t know very much about them.”
Jake’s speech patterns were awkward. He had a cognitive impairment. I adjusted my questions.
“Oh, I really like those novels, Jake. Do you have a favorite Greek myth?”
“Oh, yes, I do. I think I like the myth of Echo or maybe Midas. Yes, I think I like Midas the best. That’s a good one.”
“I like that one, too. Do you have a favorite Greek god?”
“I do! I really like Poseidon. He’s the god of the waters.”
“It sounds like you learned a lot doing all this research for your project. Thank you for sharing this with me, Jake.”
He nodded. He then looked at the teacher standing next to me and asked, “Have you seen my parents? Are they here? Have you seen my dad?”
His teacher leaned down, put her arm around his shoulder and said, “Well, there are 45 minutes left. There’s still time for them to get here.”
Jake looked at her for a moment and then looked at his hands. He shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and looked off into the distance.
That exchange hit me in my chest. I wanted to cry. Jake worked hard on his project. He was excited about it, and he just wanted his mom and dad to see it. He wanted them to see what he had been doing at school. I looked at his teacher. She looked at me.
I couldn’t fix this! My gosh, I wanted to do something to fix this, and I couldn’t. I stopped and looked around the gym again at all the projects and all the kids standing by their projects. There was only one other family present. Eadaoin, Milly, and I and another couple. That’s it. This other family was making the rounds as well, asking each student about their project. As I turned to find my daughters, one of Grace’s classmates hugged me. “Can I hang out at your house this weekend? I’ll give you my phone number, okay? You can call me and ask my mom.” Then, there were other kids hugging Grace’s classmate. Then, it was one, big group hug.
I am easily overwhelmed when I see others in pain. Sometimes it paralyzes me because I’ll not know what I can do to change anything. If I can’t change anything, then what? But, I am observing more and more that our presence can change a lot. Being the parent that shows up to watch the talent show and congratulating the students means something. Being the adult that goes around to each science fair project, showing interest, and asking questions means something. Presence is a powerful thing, and it affects others.
We might not be able to change the world or fix everything, but we can offer our presence. We can show up daily, ready to listen, and ready to encourage. We might not ever know if it changed anything for anyone, but what if it did?