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Beads of Courage

I’ve been thinking all day about this post; about my wording, about whether or not I will cry as I write, or if instead I will beam with pride, like I did this afternoon (until I left the room and let the tears out).

The picture at the top depicts a small portion of one very long strand of beads–special beads. They are Beads of Courage. I had never heard of these before. One of my students has been battling cancer for 7 years, and she has been in and out by the day all year long. November was a very close call, and after a deep depression and a home visit by me, I persuaded her to return to school and be the girl she had always been again. It took a week, but she came back.


She had chemo on Tuesday and wasn’t planning on returning this week, but her counts were so high, and she felt so great, she came today, beaming as always.  And with a bag she could not wait to show me and my coworker.

Before I continue, I started writing on song 1. I am now on song 5, and it’s as if someone or some thing chose the songs for me tonight. I’m almost spooked by it. All 6 are special songs to me, in their own rite. And I checked. None of them have yet to play on MWOAS. I don’t know how it’s possible.

So out came this strand of beads. It wrapped around her neck 4 times, hanging nearly to her thighs. My coworker and I held 2/3 of the beads, as she held the other third, smiling, as she told us the black beads were for lab work, orange for platelet transfusions, blue for chemo, florescent for radiation, yellow for in-patient visits, and special beads when she had to have major surgery or several things at once. There were more that I can’t remember. She counted them out for us. She beamed. My coworker and I searched each other’s eyes.  “And that’s not even a year’s worth!” she bragged.

She’s been doing this for 7 years. Seven. Years.

She shared with other kids in the class. They gently caressed each bead, rubbed her bald head, hugged her tight. They were envious, proud. She is so so tiny.

How. That’s what I want to know. How?

I don’t know what I believe half the time. But I wonder–really wonder–if someone or some power loaned her to  me for my first year in special ed, just to show me the resiliency of life. Or that I need to get over myself. Or that some of my entitled parents need to take a step back, hug the kid they have, and pray that they never have to face a day like any one of the days each of these beads represent.

When I was working in Connecticut, I had to follow an ambulance from Madison to Yale Children’s Hospital because one of our students drank Drano. Actually, she didn’t drink Drano. She put it in her mouth, spit it out, then vomited. But we took it seriously, told her it required a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold). My requirements from the school was to not return with her: I had to make sure she stayed the night. It took 11.5 hours to convince the social workers at intake.

While I was there, a mother who spoke no English followed a gurney with her son on it, hysterical. He was little. He didn’t come out, but she did. She screamed. Like guttural screams, and I knew that her son was gone. I will never erase that noise from my heart. I had never felt so much rage. Here was this 17 year old girl who was angry that her parents wouldn’t let her come home for the weekend, so she fooled them into thinking she drank Drano, and here was this mother, whose son had an accident of some sort, and was now dead.

I threw up in the snow before going home that night.

While my student showed everyone who wanted to see her beads, I gave her a side-hug and told her, “For someone so tiny, you sure can carry a hell of a lot”. She smiled and said, “I know”. After a few minutes, I motioned to my coworker, who looked at me with hollow eyes, that I had to go outside.

I felt like I was having a panic attack. It lasted less than a minute, but i couldn’t breathe, and the tears came hard and fast. I don’t know what her future holds. It’s been a terrible year. She counts down the days to her Quincenera in November, and bets with her sister whether she will have her own hair, or will have to wear a wig. She thinks hair, her sister thinks wig, and they both think it’s hysterical.

I am so fortunate to have her sweet face in my class every day, whether she is at school or not.

I had never heard of Beads of Courage until my student mentioned them today. It’s a fascinating organization. All I know is that the reason my student doesn’t have her beads from previous years is that she made them into bracelets for people who touched her life–one of her teachers, the attendance secretary at our school, her family members, another student in 6th grade who is undergoing chemo too, and a teacher she has never had but her sister really liked.

If this girl doesn’t have 7 years worth of courage, I don’t know who does. And I am so happy she is in my life. She hugs me every day she comes in. And I am terrified to think about why. But then I think, if it’s the last time I see her, it’s the best hug I have had all day. And I now can think of 7 years of beads, and all that weight that does nothing but lift her and everyone around her, up.



How Long–Dire Straits

Island in the Sun–Weezer

I can Love You Better–The Dixie Chicks

Lucky Now–Ryan Adams

Angel of Harlem–U2

Here, There and Everywhere–The Beatles