This past week children in Howard County Public School System have begun taking online classes. They started a little later than other school districts in Maryland, but I believe in "better late than never" and so I give credit to the teachers and the leadership who have worked hard to make this happen.
Online classes have been designed for all students, including children with special needs like my daughter, Gigi. When they had their online orientation a couple of days ago, I was like, "how are the teachers planning to control each class?" As good as these teachers are, they would be counting on parents to partner them in making these online classes work. But as I looked at the other kids with their parents, I can only be thankful about how fortunate we are that we live in a place where every child - even those with special needs - are offered the same opportunites.
Looking at my daughter, and seeing how excited she was about seeing her teacher and classmates, and yet indifferent about the actual work she has to do, reminded me of a story about Nathan, a classmate who was born with a terminal disease.
At age 12, he was still in the second grade and challenged with slurred speech. Like Gigi, Nathan often sounded very coherent, bringing to fore all that he could have been but for his debilitating illness.
Unlike Gigi, Nathan had twenty children in his class. Their teacher, Ms. Spencer, was always flustered. Another student, Jeremy, had special needs that took up so much of Ms. Spencer's time that she worried about the other 19 children.
Like Gigi’s teacher, Ms. Spencer invited Nathan’s parents for a chat. This wasn’t their first meeting, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. They’ve heard all that before. They sat quietly and listened to Ms. Spencer went through her list of Nathan’s obstructive habits in class. She ended her list with this emphatic suggestion “Your son really needs to be in a special school. His presence in this class is unfair to the 19 other children.”
They’ve heard this before, but this is the challenge: “There are no special schools in the area” They responded. “And we know what a shock it would be for our son if we moved him from here. He really likes your class”.
That night, Ms. Spencer thought about Nathan and his helpless parents. She thought about how difficult it must be for them to care for a child with so many needs, knowing all the while that, sooner or later, his illness will kill him. That night, she said a prayer for Nathan... “Father God, please help me to be more patient with Nathan.” From that day on, she made an effort to tolerate Nathan.
Not quite long after her prayer, Easter rolled by and Ms. Spencer thought it would be a great idea to teach the kids something new about Easter. She narrated the Jesus story - his life, death and resurrection. She concluded that Easter was all about resurrection and new life. For their homework, she handed each child a plastic egg and told them to fill it with something that represented new life. When she handed Nathan his egg, she noticed the same indifferent reaction that often greeted her whenever she gave him his homework.
As she often did, she would call his parents in the evening and explain the assignment to them so they could help Nathan with it, in the same manner that Gigi’s teacher expects us to help her with her homework.
The next day, Ms. Spencer walked into the class to find a pile of 20 plastic eggs on her desk. To her dismay, she forgot to call Nathan’s parents. She knew Nathan wouldn’t be able to complete the assignment without help. She couldn’t believe her own disappointment with herself as she went through the assignments.
Jenny, in the front row, was the first egg, and it contained a flower. “Great choice, Jenny,” she said. “Flowers grow at the beginning of spring, and they symbolize new life for plants”. The second egg contained a paper butterfly. “Another brilliant choice, Stuart”, she said, reading the name on the egg. “Caterpillars turn into butterflies and a new life emerges from an old form. Well done.”
She picked a third egg from the pile; it was Nathan’s egg. She didn’t know what to expect, and when she opened it, it was empty. Nathan didn’t understand the assignment and his parents didn’t know. She thought hard about how she can avoid embarrassing Nathan in front of the whole class. But then a voice disrupted her thoughts: “That’s mine, Ms. Spencer. Aren’t you going to talk about it?” Ms. Spencer hesitantly responded, “But Nathan, your egg is empty.” And this is where it gets a little more interesting. Nathan looked into his teacher’s eyes, and with a smile, responded, “Yes, Ms. Spencer. Just like Jesus’ tomb.”
The whole class gasped and fell into silence. They saw tears rolling down Ms. Spencer’s cheeks. Nathan understood the assignment after all. The egg is empty just as Jesus’ tomb is empty.
Easter - the story of the empty tomb and egg. Remember, new life is made possible only when we experience death…and, in our case, the kind of death which resurrects in us the desire to live again, in spite of the devastation in our lives. It is the kind of death which inspires us to go the extra mile to serve the Nathans and Gigis of our world because we believe in life, however challenging it may be. It is the kind of death which makes it possible for us to see the other side of life-beauty, contentment, goodness, peace, and grace. Confucius settles us with these words: “I was complaining that I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”
Three weeks later, Nathan died. His 19 classmates each brought a plastic egg and placed it on his casket. Each one of them was empty, and they needed to be - for without an empty egg, life cannot rise from the ashes and devastations of our lives.
Nathan was right, after all... the egg is empty like Jesus’ tomb, and new life is always possible - even from an empty egg.