Decorations of Hope—A Love Saves Story
Rev. Paul S. Sawyer
Some years ago I worked in Massachusetts at a small intensive day school for children and youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities. These were kids that had been bounced in and out of regular schools and programs, and some, even, who by middle school had already spent some time in jail.
These were tough kids with tough lives, and with some regularity, one or another of the students would lose control, and physically lash out at whatever and whomever was around. Part of my job was to help kids in such circumstances, to talk with them, and, when needed, to physically restrain them in order to protect their own, or others’ safety.
Now, the school building was a converted old majestic Victorian house, and right inside the front door was a nice entryway. Usually the entryway was pretty sparse, but when the holidays came around, the staff of the school decorated the space with lights and garland and even a well decorated artificial Christmas tree.
Every day during the first week that those decorations were up, at some point a student having a hard time would take her or his anger out on that holiday scene. The garlands would be torn off the wall, the decorations scattered and that tree left lying on its side, branches strewn about all over.
So it became part of our regular staff routine in the afternoon after the kids had gone home to come together to put the entryway back in order. We would remove or fix anything broken, put things back where they went, and set that tree back up in its stand. If anything was too far gone to be saved, we would be sure to replace it by the next morning, so that the room looked festive again before the students came back.
At the end of that week, I asked the principal of the school why we didn’t just get rid of at least the decorations. Why spend all this time decorating a space so that the kids could tear it apart? It seemed we would all have an easier time of it if we just took them away.
It’s been many years since then, so I don’t remember her reply in anything like her exactly words—but I’ll give you the gist of it: She said that it was of profound importance that we keep putting everything back in—all the decorations, all the lights—and making the room celebratory and warm. She said that we might decide to change our decorations some day, but we would never do so because a child had destroyed something. To do that, she said, would be to send the message that we had given up on them, and that we didn’t think they deserved a nice space, or a celebration for the holidays.
She also suggested that I be patient, because if we were doing our jobs well, over time, the room would get damaged less and less. But in the meantime, she said, we will buy decoration after decoration after decoration, and we will let them know that their actions won’t change our resolve for a good life for them; that no matter what they do, they cannot diminish our sense of love for who they are, and hope for who they are learning to be.
Years later, I remain honored and proud that I got to work in a school that chooses love and hope every day for kids that, honestly, it would be much easier to give up on—kids that, in fact, were used to people, and unfortunately to whole schools, giving up on them. It was a small thing, that decorated room, but the kids noticed. I’m sure that those decorations, and many other little actions taken there every day made a difference. It certainly made a difference in me, and in my sense of the power of true tenacious love.
My principal was right, by the way. By the next week , though some kids still occasionally lost control, that room, and all the decorations, almost always made it through.