A Loving Teacher

I give love, I live love, I am love.  This is one of seven daily intentions that I repeat every day.  Taking this intention and making it part of my being is so hard.  I struggle with it every day, after all what exactly is love?   How can I give it, live it and be it if I can’t even define it?  I can sit here and tell you that I love all beings and yet today I walked past a homeless person ignoring his jingling cup. 

Awhile back I was approached by a homeless couple.  A gorgeous summer day with a blue sky straight out of a postcard, it filled me with joy.   Heading east on Roosevelt Road to the lakefront, I intended to get in a good 10 mile walk.   Nearing Wabash Avenue, a couple stopped me.  Exceedingly thin, they wore mismatched clothing that had not been washed in weeks.  The woman hid shyly behind the man and let him do all the talking. 

Miss would you spare a minute?  My wife and I are out of work; we have no home and are staying at the shelter down the street.  The shelter is wonderful to us, but we have three children and they don’t have much.  We are out of diapers and we have no soap to wash our clothes.  I know we smell, but until I get some work, I have no money for soap.   Do you think you could go into the Jewel across the street and get us a small bottle of laundry detergent, a box of cereal and some milk for our kids?”

I was touched.  Instead of asking for money, this man asked for a box of cereal and milk.  His story rang true. 

OK” I said. 

We walked across the street to the Jewel food store.    Grabbing a shopping cart, the three of us walked the aisles. 

Pick out the cereal and milk you want.  Pick out some soap.” 

The wife scampered off.   Her husband’s skin was chapped and he had the yellow teeth of a smoker.  His sweaty, sour smell told me he had not bathed in quite awhile, and yet he stood tall while a stranger gave him charity.    The Deli Counter offered a 10 piece chicken dinner for $12. 

What kind of chicken do you like?”  I asked and he started to cry. 

I ordered a mix of white and dark meat, some biscuits, fries and coleslaw and placed them in the basket. His wife walked up with a bottle of Tide, a box of Captain Crunch and a half gallon of milk. 

What else do you need?” I asked. 

Diapers” and I shook my head yes.  Again, she ran off.

I never asked their names.  The wife hovered over the bagger as he worked while her husband stood by quietly and watched as I paid.  Picking up the bags, I passed them to him but he backed up with his hands in the air. 

No, no!   They will think I stole these.”   I pushed the bags into his hands. 

The receipt is in the bag.  No one can stop you if you have the receipt.”  I said.

We walked outside under the watchful eyes of store personnel.    I turned and waved good bye. 

“Wait Miss.   I want to thank you.  

That’s OK” I said.  

No, you don’t understand.  I want to thank you for these things of course, but I also want to thank you for treating us like human beings.  You treated us with dignity.”  His tears were flowing and his wife joined him, weeping silently by his side. 

“It’s OK” I said and lightly touched his arm. 

I turned and walked away feeling good, thinking I had acted in a loving way.  Two months later on my way to work, this same couple came up to me.   Still thin, they were cleanly dressed this time and looked in better shape.  As they approached I smiled thinking they remembered my previous kindness.

Miss, may I talk to you for a minute?  My wife and I are out of work and we are staying at a shelter up the street….” 

I interrupted his prepared script with a curt “I can’t help you today”. 

They did not remember me at all.  I was one of the many marks they had hit up for food.   This was their occupation, to walk the streets preying on the compassion of strangers.  I felt angry and deflated.  Angry I had been so stupid, deflated as I imagined them laughing later that summer day about the woman they had conned into giving them so much.

And yet, did I not do a loving thing?  Did I not give of myself without any thought of return?   Do I need some type of recognition for a loving act?   If I do require recognition does that mean it is no longer a loving act but rather something akin to self-gratification?

It brought me back to my early 30’s, to a time I worked with special needs children and to one girl in particular.  Older than her classmates, Pashawn was mentally challenged as well as autistic.  At the age of 12 she towered over the other students in her second grade class.  Together for months I worked with Pashawn on the same five vocabulary words.   But Pashawn was not engaged in the process, preferring instead to sit across from me crooning softly while she rocked back and forth to self-soothe.   

For three months, three times a week, I reviewed the same words with her over and over.  And she continued to ignore me…until one day.  Once again I spread out the five flash cards with the words printed on them.  Pashawn looked down at the table and said,

Dog, run, fast, tree, cat” pointing to each as she said them.  

I was shocked!   She read the words perfectly and with distinction.  Three months of tedious work had come down to ten seconds.  After three months of teaching I gave her five words.  That was nothing compared to the lesson she taught me in only ten seconds.  Pashawn taught me everyone is worth my time and love no matter the outcome.

As I think of Pashawn and the homeless folks that I helped that day, I am struck with a sense of profound humility.   I no longer feel angry that those folks are likely still out on the street, searching for someone else to give them food.   If I see them again, if they approach me again, I will give them a few dollars and thank them for the lesson learned, that giving must be enough in and of itself with no thought of reward or it is not truly a gift.

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