The word "serendipity" comes from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." In the strangest of places under the strangest of circumstances I met such a hero.
Sometimes it takes the random and unexpected gift of a stranger to open our eyes so we can make those discoveries of things we were not in quest of. I've spent a lot of time on airplanes over the last several years and I've learned how to maximize time away from my Blackberry to catch up on reading and writing. This overseas trip to London was no different. I settled down in my seat, making sure that I didn't make eye contact with my neighbor - God forbid they say hello and want to talk - and got to work. All of a sudden, there was a commotion in the seat next to me - a passenger with medical equipment needed to plug in her device for the flight. Selfishly I thought, well, there goes my cocoon.
Lil got herself situated, introduced herself, and explained that her machine helped her to keep breathing when she fell asleep. She said it was quiet and shouldn't bother me during the flight. I'm familiar with the device from my days as a nurse, so I asked her about her sleep apnea. Lil informed me that she stops breathing as much as 30 times an hour for as long as a minute each time. My God, I thought, I'm going to have to do CPR on this flight if her mask falls off.
Lil slept, and I worked. But, every few minutes I would look over to make sure she was still breathing. After a brief nap, she awoke refreshed and ready to talk. I put my book down and decided to listen. That is when I received the gift of Lil.
Lil's from Huntington, West Virginia - most notably known for the tragic 1970-airplane crash that killed 75 people from Marshall University's football team, coaching staff and supporters. Matthew McConaughey stared in the 2006 film, We Are Marshall, which highlights the rebuilding of the football program and the healing of the community in the years following the tragedy. Like Lil, most of the 50,000 people living in Huntington have been forever changed by this event. But for Lil, it was an apocalyptic flood that turned a small creek into a 44 ft wall of water that swept her uncle's house away and killed almost everyone in its path. It was at that moment that the young 16 year old made a promise to God that if she survived, she would devote her life to children.
Lil made good on her promise, got her undergraduate degrees in all levels special education, elementary and English grades 1-9. After teaching two summers at Columbia University in their Science Camp, she completed her Master's degree in gifted education. Even after her MA, she found herself drawn to teaching "extraordinary" students. These students would encompass everything in the education spectrum from severe profoundly involved students to those who are profoundly gifted. (Lil lovingly says that most of us are ordinary people seeking extraordinary destinies. Her students are extraordinary people seeking ordinary destinies!)
She went around the room, holding the box of tissues saying, "Ok, tell me about your disability this one time....but after today we are going to focus on what you can do, not what you can't do." She starts with her own story, telling the children how she is petrified by the water and can't swim. Then, as each child talks about their disability, and what they believe defines them, Lil pulls out a silver dollar.
She asks each child to hold the silver dollar close to their face and describe what they see. The children depict the coin in detail. Then Lil asks them to walk over to the window and hold their silver dollar at arm's length. "Now, what do you see?" The student's reply, "I see trees....I see the sky.....I see Mr. Jones cutting the grass....I see flowers...." She then says to her students, what about the coin? They see it, but they see other things too. They become aware of wonder.
This was Lil's first lesson - The more you focus on what you can't do, the less you see the endless opportunities in front of you. She explained to me that most of her children suffer from 'learned helplessness' and are held back from developing their gifts by well-intentioned family members and a system that encourages dependency. She talked about Quad D learning which is a powerful educational thrust today and how it involves an individual's ability to think critically and apply knowledge and problem solving techniques in various situations. Her focus was to help her students make good decisions, not amass large amounts of knowledge just for the sake of knowing. She was teaching common sense to children with uncommon senses.
Lil went on to explain that her approach to teaching was to do whatever she could to unlock the potential within each child. She believed in them in ways that would help them believe in themselves. She thought there was too much emphasis on labeling children based on their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. She described Bloom's taxonomy and the concept of multiple intelligences to help me understand that each child has intelligences, just not all in the verbal or mathematical realm. She used the example of a Downs syndrome child, citing their interpersonal skills, saying that they 'know no strangers.' These students fit stupendously into the Hospitality pathway
In 1993, Lil's frustration with the system and her passion to help her students become independent and gainfully employed moved her to seek legislative assistance. On her lunch break one day, she called information and asked for the phone number to the Department of Education in Washington, DC. She asked the person who answered if she could talk to the person in charge, and much to her surprise, the Director answered the phone. The Director was a disabled vet who was moved by Lil's evidenced-based and passionate plea that the system was getting in the way of her students progress by not opening up enough employment opportunities allowing them to achieve their potential and independence.
At that time, the only work program offered to her students was through Good Will Industries, where she would take her students to sort donated items. The long-held belief was that learning disabled employees had 10% productivity compared to non-disabled employees. Those facts, she explained, were just wrong. Her students were often more productive than the non-disabled employees and through her research she proved that LD employees, properly trained, are more than 70% productive. As a result, she was able to place more than 200 students in more than 75 different corporations over her career, many of whom went on to live independently, get married and have their own children.
Sad that this amazing woman had decided to leave her vocation after 40 years of service, I asked why she retired? Well, she said, "I figure I have 720 Saturdays left if I live to be 85....there is still a lot I want to do like paint and spend time with the love of my life."
720 Saturdays? I started to do the math for myself - unbelievably it didn't seem like a whole lot of time to work on my bucket list. I asked her about the love of her life - I'll save those stories, but she taught me a great deal about love, loyalty and friendship.
Thoughts of Lil lingered throughout my time in London. One morning at sunrise, I took a walk and stood on a bridge holding a £2 coin in front of me at arm's length. What did I see - a large Ferris wheel, Parliament, and the beautiful sun rising over the river. The coin represented my fears and insecurities. All of a sudden, they seemed small compared to the possibilities around me. I thought about the things that really matter to me like family, friends and my passion for social justice and peace. I thought about what I wanted to be doing in 720 Saturdays and more importantly, what I didn't want to be doing. This October has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays; an event that according to some calculations won't happen again for 823 years. Time and Saturdays are what we make of them.
I'm grateful that Lil shared her wisdom with me. She advised me that when you give a hug, be the last one to let go, saying, "Hugs mean a lot in this world." If we allow ourselves, we can experience the Lil's of the world every day. Forget the self-help book written by the famous PhD, just take time to listen to people talk about their life stories and learn from their wisdom. There are heroes everywhere. It's that simple.