Officially, she had no children. Unofficially, she had scads of them. I don’t know of the children she shepherded as teacher and librarian. By the time I met her she was long retired. I know only of the countless children who came through her Sunday School classes.
She was a legendary teacher of small children. I think she taught for so long because parents kept begging her to hang on until she could teach their child. But mostly I think she hung on because she just loved children.
I interviewed her one time and asked about the children she’d taught. “I never had a bad child,” she said. “Just some that needed a little more attention.” And children knew the difference. It seemed as though they always shone in her class. When she died, the church was filled with many of those now grown up children, gathered there to honor her because good or bad, she’d made them feel special and welcomed and loved. She saw the light in them.
No matter how good children’s parents are, they need other adults in their lives. They need adults who can relate to them without the pressure of also having to parent them. In traditional times, that function was often undertaken by the extended family: grandparents, aunts and uncles, including “the cool aunt” (of which every child should have at least one.) But these days lots of folks don’t live close enough to extended families to be able to have those everyday relationships. Or the extended family may be so fractured that the parents wisely keep their distance.
It’s one of the reasons why we need faith communities. There’s a reason why we refer to the best of them as a family. It gives children a chance to form relationships with adults who are not their parents — the teacher, the small group leader, the choir leader, the couples who volunteer with the youth group and go with them on mission trips, the older adults who sit next to them. At the very least, it gives them a wider context for understanding the world and their place in it. At the most, it may save their lives.
Through the years I’ve worked with many clients who had truly terrible childhoods filled with abuse and/or neglect. For some of them, the one thing that gave them a sliver of hope that they might survive and that there might be some small possibility of promise and value in their lives was their family of faith. Adults who welcomed them. Adults who cared about them. Adults who did not shame them or hurt them.
I watched as the family came to the church dinner with their baby. The baby had been eagerly anticipated and warmly welcomed. I watched as the parents sat down to eat without interruption, knowing that their baby was being held by one set of loving, safe arms after another. I appreciated the trust inherent in such a picture.
I know not every faith family honors such trust. Some communities are too broken themselves — and some people in those communities are too broken to be trusted. Sometimes there is more damage than healing.
But it makes me think of the clients who sit in my office and say, “My parents passed on a terrible legacy to me. I will do what it takes so that I won’t pass it on to my children. It ends here.” Maybe our faith communities need to be as wise and courageous in being clear about what we are passing on to our own children.
Because there are lots of children out there who need a Miss Jane.