“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
(*Note: names and identifying information in the following story have been changed in this essay to protect privacy and confidentiality)
It was my birthday. I was turning 28 years old, and had been a school social worker at a K-6 elementary school for two years. Other than the fact that it was my birthday, it was an ordinary morning. Students were coming and going from the office where I worked, and the sounds of chattery children filled the air. As I made my way down that main hallway, I was stopped by a girl I’d been working with for a few weeks. Her name was Sherry, she was in 4th grade, and was having difficulties at home. When she saw me, her face lit up and she called my name.
“Mrs. Bondioli! Here, I made you these. Happy Birthday!” Sherry said.
She took something out of her ripped backpack, unwrapped it from the napkin she’d used to protect it, and handed it to me. It was a small plate of Easy-Bake Oven brownies, the kind that you make from a mix and bake in a child’s oven. They were covered in pink sprinkles, and presented themselves in a variety of shapes and sizes. The plate was smudged with chocolate smears, and the hands that held the plate were dirty.
But I’d never seen a gift so beautiful.
“Thank you so much!” I gushed as I accepted her gift, touched that she’d remembered my birthday. I offered her one of her own brownies, and we stood in that hallway together, on an ordinary October morning, eating those brownies. In that moment, I was changed.
Working as a school social worker, in a school setting, had never occurred to me. I was an Undecided major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for as long as possible, and was the queen of every “Introduction to…” class. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that it needed to involve helping people.
I finally landed on social work. My first job post-graduation was at a county human services agency; I was a case manager for children and youth who were involved with juvenile court for delinquency charges. It was a fulfilling job, always interesting and stimulating, but incredibly stressful, and burnout was high. After 4 years, I had the most seniority on my unit, and I was feeling the burn. While I definitely felt like I was helping these kids, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t getting to them soon enough, that I could have done more to help them and their families if I had intervened earlier. My work felt insufficient. It was time to try a new approach.
At the UW-Madison Graduate School of Social Work I was once again unsure what concentration was right for me. Among the choices, I decided that school social work would be best. I had always liked school, hadn’t I, and besides, the work schedule sounded great (no “on-call”! summers off!). I thought, “I can give this a try for awhile.”
Little did I know that this was all Before Brownies, and that I’d just made a decision that would lead me to my true self.
After being hired at Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools, I quickly realized how different a school setting was than my previous agency. I was not ready for the pace and focus and I felt “out of my element.” I was slow to react to teachers’ calls for help, I was more focused on establishing my own practice than being in a classroom, and most critically, I felt separate and isolated from the “real teachers”. I didn’t feel like my voice was equal with theirs.
In his book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, Parker Palmer states, “If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.”1 Not only did I not see myself as an educator, but I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to any of the other staff in my building. I felt clumsy, inferior, fraudulent. Could I even be effective in this environment?
Then, I got the brownies.
After Brownies, I began to see myself differently. Like the Skinhorse in The Velveteen Rabbit, I started to feel Real. Somehow, I had reached that girl, a very difficult, stubborn, defiant girl who was a victim of so many circumstances that were out of her control. I had gotten through to her heart and opened it even the tiniest crack, and that’s when I realized that I was an educator too.
I might not teach children to read or write, but I was certainly able to teach them to love themselves and others, to positively cope with the chaos that existed all around them, to embrace their friends in appropriate social play, to find and rely on trusting adults, and to help them leave my school a little stronger and more resilient than they were when they came. I began to realize that I indeed had an educator’s heart.
As my confidence as an educator grew, so did my effectiveness. I became more open and more connected to students and parents. With regard to my colleagues, I finally felt like one of them. I leaned in and listened to professional development conversations, and I chimed in at staff meetings. Going into classrooms to support student behaviors felt more comfortable to me, and was also more helpful for the student. With each situation, I felt more confident to bring my skills and expertise, meeting difficult students and parents where they are at and guiding them to find their own skills and strengths. I began to hear the hum and feel the heartbeat of the school, and to find my place within it.
I am now proud to call myself an educator. I have a purpose in a school setting, and I feel like I belong here. Every day is not perfect, and I know that there will be bumps and fumbles along the way. But I truly believe that I am doing the work I was meant to do. What’s more, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn next. Hand me a brownie – I’m home.