"There's a new student waiting in your room," my principal announced, hurrying past me on the stairs. "Name's Mary. I need to talk to you about her. Stop in the office later."
I nodded and glanced down at the packs of pink, red and white paper, and the jars of paste and boxes of scissors I held in my arms. "Fine," I said. "I've just come from the supply room. We're making valentine envelopes this morning. It'll be a good way for her to get acquainted."
This was my third year of teaching fourth-graders, but I was already aware how much they loved Valentine's Day (now just a week away), and making these bright containers to tape to the fronts of their desks was a favorite activity. Mary would surely be caught up in the excitement and be chatting cheerfully with new friends before the project was finished. Humming to myself, I continued up the stairs.
I didn't see her at first. She was sitting in the back of the room with her hands folded in her lap. Her head was down and long, light-brown hair fell forward, caressing the softly shadowed cheeks.
"Welcome, Mary," I said. "I'm so glad you'll be in our room. And this morning you can make an envelope to hold your valentines for our party on Valentine's Day."
No response. Had she heard me?
"Mary," I said again, slowly and distinctly.
She raised her head and looked into my eyes. The smile on my face froze. A chill went through me and I stood motionless. The eyes in that sweet, little-girl face were strangely empty - as if the owner of a house had drawn the blinds and gone away. Once before I had seen such eyes: They had belonged to an inmate of a mental institution, one I'd visited as a college student. "She's found life unendurable," the resident psychiatrist had explained, "so she's retreated from the world." She had, he went on, killed her husband in a fit of insane jealousy.
But this child - she could have been my own small, lovable niece except for those blank, desolate eyes. Dear God, I thought, what horror has entered the life of this innocent little girl?
I longed to take her in my arms and hug the hurt away. Instead, I pulled books from the shelf behind her and placed them in her lap. "Here are texts you'll be using, Mary. Would you like to look at them?" Mechanically, she opened each book, closed it and resumed her former position.
The bell rang then, and the children burst in on a wave of cold, snowy air. When they saw the valentine materials on my desk, they bubbled with excitement.
There was little time to worry about Mary that first hour. I took attendance, settled Mary into her new desk and introduced her. The children seemed subdued and confused when she failed to acknowledge the introduction or even raise her head.
Quickly, in order to divert them, I distributed materials for the envelopes and suggested ways to construct and decorate them. I placed materials on Mary's desk, too, and asked Kristie, her nearest neighbor, to offer help.
With the children happily engrossed, I escaped to the office. "Sit down," my principal said, "and I'll fill you in." The child, she said, had been very close to her mother, living alone with her in a Detroit suburb. One night, several weeks ago, someone had broken into their home and shot and killed the mother in Mary's presence. Mary escaped, screaming, to a neighbor's. Then the child went into shock. She hadn't cried or mentioned her mother since.
The principal sighed and then went on. "Authorities sent her here to live with her only relative - a married sister. The sister enrolled Mary this morning. I'm afraid we'll get little help from her. She's divorced, with three small children to support. Mary is just one more responsibility."
"But what can I do?" I stammered. "I've never known a child like this before." I felt so inadequate.
"Give her love," she suggested, "lots and lots of love. She's lost so much. There's prayer, too - and faith, faith that will make her a normal little girl again if you just don't lose hope."
I returned to my room to discover that the children were already shunning this "different" child. Not that Mary noticed. Even kindly little Kristie looked affronted. "She won't even try," she told me.
I sent a note to the principal to remove Mary from the room for a short time. I needed to enlist the children's help before recess, before they could taunt her about being "different."
"Mary's been hurt badly," I explained gently, "and she's so quiet because she's afraid she'll be hurt again. You see, her mother just died, and there's no one else who loves her. You must be very patient and understanding. It may be a long time before she's ready to laugh and join in your games, but you can do a lot to help her."
Bless all children. How loving they can be once they understand. On Valentine's Day, Mary's envelope overflowed. She looked at each card without comment and replaced it in her container. She didn't take them home, but at least she looked at them.
She arrived at school insufficiently dressed for the bitterly cold weather. Her raw, chapped hands - without mittens - cracked and bled. Although she seemed oblivious to sore hands and the cold, I sewed buttons on her thin coat, and the children brought caps, scarves, sweaters and mittens. Kristie, like a little mother, helped Mary bundle up before she went outdoors, and she insisted on walking to and from school with her.
In spite of our efforts, we seemed to be getting no closer to Mary as the cold, dreary March days dragged by. Even my faith was wearing thin. My heart ached so desperately, wanting this child to come alive, to be aware of the beauty the wonder, the fun - and, yes - even the pain of living.
Dear God, I prayed, please let one small miracle happen. She needs it so desperately.
Then on a late March day, one of the boys excitedly reported a robin in the schoolyard. We flocked to the window to see it. "Spring's here!" the children cried. "Let's make a flower border for the room!"
Why not? I thought. Anything to lift our spirits. This time the papers we selected were beautiful pastel colors - with brown strips to weave into baskets. I showed the children how to weave the baskets and how to fashion all the flowers we welcome in early spring. Remembering the valentine incident, I expected nothing from Mary; nevertheless, I placed the beautifully colored papers on her desk and encouraged her to try. Then I left the children to do their own creating, and I spent the next half-hour sorting scraps of paper at the back of the room.
Suddenly, Kristie came hurrying to me, her face aglow. "Come see Mary's basket," she exclaimed. "It's so pretty! You'll never believe it!"
I caught my breath at its beauty. The gently curled petals of hyacinths, the daffodils' fluted cups, skillfully fashioned crocuses and violets - work one would expect from a child much older.
"Mary," I said. "This is beautiful. How did you ever manage?"
She looked at me with the shining eyes of any normal little girl. "My mother loved flowers," she said simply. "She had all of these growing in our garden."
Thank you, God, I said silently. You've given us the miracle. I knelt and put my arms around the child. Then the tears came, slowly at first, but soon she was sobbing her heart out against my shoulder. The other children had tears in their eyes, too, but theirs - like mine - were tears of joy.
We fastened her basket in the very center of the border at the front of the room. It remained there until school ended in June. On the last day, Mary held it carefully as she carried it out the door. Then she came running back, pulled a crocus from her basket and handed it to me. "This is for you," she said, and she gave me a hug and a Mary moved away that summer. I lost track of her, but I'll never forget her. And I know God is caring for her.
I've kept the crocus in my desk ever since - just to remind me of Mary and of the enduring power of love and faith.