Believe in people like white-haired ladies believed in me

WORK | 8 mins

I don’t know you personally, but I do know that what you do matters.

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In May 2006, I didn’t know any English. My country of El Salvador was filled with gang violence, and each day that passed, my parents feared what could become of my life if I stayed. It was decided I would move to the United States to live with my dad. I had to say goodbye to everything I had known for the first 12 years of my life in one short day. I stepped into a life that was different: a new language, a new culture, a new step-sibling. All with the promise that my future could potentially be better—all while trying to still be a kid.

My new reality was filled with many unknowns. I was singled out in school simply because I was the new kid from another country. I was a part of the English as a Second Language program (ESL) that many schools have. In that program, I met my lifelong friend, Ms. Mary, a cute little white-haired teacher. She believed in me. She would pick me up and take me to church on Sundays—far more than any teacher’s duty. She worked with me my first summer in the United States instead of taking a well-deserved break after already having me for a year. She rearranged family obligations and vacations just so that I could learn English one-on-one with her. I remember giving my first presentation ever in English to what seemed like the biggest and most terrifying audience: Ms. Mary and her husband, George.

Fast forward one year, and I had tested out of the ESL program by the end of 2007. I learned later that this was unusual. But middle school was rough for me. Ms. Mary had retired, and I was at a new school. But I still continued to have people who believed in me. People like Ms. Whybrew, who always ensured I understood the material in her class. Mrs. Klint, who helped me grow as a writer when I couldn’t figure out what a run-on sentence was. My life was surrounded by adults who made a difference, who cared and went beyond their duties to reach me.

My parents paved the way and sacrificed so much by helping me come to the United States and have a shot at the opportunities they wish they could have had. I had to make things happen. I ended up beating all the odds that were against me: a new language, low state test scores, achievement gaps, a 19 on my first ACT attempt (still embarrassed to say that). But I got scholarships to Miami University. My parents couldn’t help me pay for college, but they gave me every ounce of support and cheer they could possibly give me. But I didn’t end up beating all the odds on my own. It was because other people believed in me.

My teachers and my parents showed me something Jesus modeled many years ago. When Jesus first came, he didn’t choose the kid at the top of the graduating class to become one of his disciples. He chose people like me, who were not fit for the task at hand by any worldly measures. They were fishermen, tax collectors, and screw-ups. He was called the friend of sinners.

I always had the thought in the back of my head of the greater impact I could have by being like the caring adults in my life. Today, I get the honor to teach about 165 kids daily. It’s a high calling. I also get to coach a team of 60+ kids. It’s not a glamorous career. There are days where I feel like a failure. When one of my kids are hurting, I run through things I could do or could’ve done to help them. It’s hard mentally and emotionally. There are not a lot of thank yous, but that’s OK. There is a story in the Bible where Jesus heals a total of 10 people. They go away excited, telling people what had happened. Only one of them returns to Jesus to say thank you. I’m not a mathematician, but I believe that’s a 10% return on investment. I moved the decimal twice and got that. If the greatest teacher of all time got a 10% return on investment. Can I really expect more?

I’ve been called names by students to my face and in front of others. I’ve been the “bad guy.” And those are the kids I relate to most because I was that kid, too. But there is nothing worth more than when you hear a student say: “You made a difference.” Or “You taught me about compassion.” Or even, “You were the best teacher I ever had, and I didn’t say that enough last year.”

Nobody remembers 10 words from their Spanish vocabulary list in high school. If you do, please put that you are bilingual on your next job application. But people remember who cared. Who stopped. The person who took the hit for a kid when he was put on the spot.

Jesus did this when a woman was caught in adultery, and people were trying to stone her. Jesus simply bends down and begins to write on the ground. Nobody knows what He wrote, but I imagine that woman on the ground, finally getting a break from these guys since all the attention went to what Jesus was writing. Jesus later leans over, picks her up, and says “Nobody condemns you.” Powerful.

I try to teach this to my kids. They are not their biggest mistake or even their biggest accomplishment. They are individuals who have a greater purpose, even if they don’t know it yet or can’t see it themselves. We’ve all copied a homework assignment. I did, and Mrs. Klint caught me and e-mailed home. How embarrassing! The teacher who poured so much into me and now this? But she never looked at me any different. She continues to see the value and potential in me to this day as my coworker. And you know what? I never did it again. It taught me about integrity—a life skill that extends far beyond a homework assignment.

My story is the result of a team that believed in me. They were a part of my life. I want parents to know: I am on your team. I want the best for your kid. I show up because someone showed up for me, someone loved me. I show up because I know Jesus would hang out with these kids. I go to your child’s game, play, concert, etc., no matter how tired I am because I see them as my kids too, and I know how much it means to them. I want to cheer them on. I hope to speak of the potential and value I see in them. They can overcome any challenge they are facing and go on to live a life of great impact. Sometimes the best moments have come as a result of asking a question. How was your weekend? How is your girlfriend? If I care about someone, those things will matter to me. It’s just like how my honest prayers matter to Jesus. I tell him about the silliest little things, like if I have a crush on someone. That high school part of me hasn’t gone away.

We are all on a team that can change the world. We’re a team like the 12 who weren’t the best students by any means. I mean, heck, they fell asleep during the most intense lesson when they were supposed to pray with Jesus before his death. Yet, they still went on to change the world. Why? Because someone believed in them. Jesus told them they would do greater things than he did on this earth. I want to be that person. Each day I get to become a better team player. I am honored to have each child in my class and to call them my student.

This gift isn’t limited to me as a teacher. Every single one of us has a powerful opportunity to show this kind of love in our spheres of influence.

We all encounter people in our day who could use this kind of love—who need someone to believe in them. Each of us has the high honor of showing others the immense value they carry from God and to help them believe they can go on to change the world, too.

Written by Ricardo Calles on Feb 17, 2019
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Discussion Questions

  1. What strikes you most in Rico’s article? Why?

  2. Who comes to mind as someone you could impact if you tangibly showed them you believed in them?

  3. Think of one way this week you can invest in someone. Tell a friend so they can hold you to it. Who knows what world-changing potential lies in someone that you are uniquely positioned to encourage.

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