Sherry’s Hopes

December 30, 2008

The other day I mentioned that I would be using Joyce Rupp’s devotional guide Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment “again this year” because it had “nourished me in the past.” It was published first in 1985. The copy I have is from the fourth printing in 1989. I don’t know when I last used it, but I know it has to be after 1997.

The desire to use this resource again came to me Sunday morning when images of bread and the phrase “setting the sponge” appeared during C&C (Coffee and Contemplation), my silent meditation and prayer time without which the day just doesn’t get started right. I had to go upstairs to Lynn’s room to pluck it out of the basket where I knew I had put it along with some other spirituality resources. I brought it down to my place in the kitchen and ran my hands over it, greeting it like an old friend.

A  paper was sticking out of it, in what turned out to be the section for November. Wow, I thought. I must have really stayed with this the last time I used it. I like finding things stuck in books I haven’t used in a while. Often my bookmarks are 3×5 cards with notes, or receipts from the grocery store, or a greeting card. Finding one sometimes gives me a glimpse of who I was and what I was thinking about at a particular time.

Inside Fresh Bread was a dried leaf from a ginkgo tree that I picked up at the Jesuit Spiritual center in Wernersville. The series of poustinia retreats I made in 1993? The dream analysis workshop in 1996? I pulled out the paper, and knew at once. 1998, probably, the first year after I left the classroom.

The sheet is 3-hole punched, wide-ruled, and about 7.5 by 10.5 inches, a non-standard size. A quick swipe with my pH testing pen shows that it is not acid free. It is, in fact, beginning to turn brown around the edges. It’s the kind of paper we gave the students at the school where I taught.

Written on it is a list:
To be skinny
To have clear skin
To have a small house
To have 2 nice, safe vehicles
To quit smoking
To be happy
To be healthy
To have a healthy boyfriend and Baby

Across the top, in my handwriting, is “Sherry’s Hopes.”

When did I do this exercise with my students? Probably not first thing in September, before we’d built some community and some trust. More likely it was in January, during those first days back at work, when everybody is still feeling a little sludgy and it’s harder to move back into the school routine than it is in August. “What are your hopes for the new year?” I probably asked, knowing that the exercise would strike some as stupid, some as banal, some even as impossible, because they lived in such quiet desperation.

Sherry was seventeen and two months pregnant the first time she slouched down into a desk in the far corner of my classroom, took a long pull from her bottle of Turkey Hill peach flavored iced tea, snarled a “here” when I called her name, and looked out the window the rest of the time she was there. She reminded me of Janis Joplin swigging Southern Comfort.

She was the fifth or sixth child in a noisy, chaotic family. Each of the siblings who had gone before her had presented a different challenge to their teachers. Her boyfriend was about five years older than she and worked construction. Not long after she told him (and her parents) that she was pregnant, he fell from a roof straight down, landing on his feet, breaking both hips and the long bones in both legs. He would be disabled for at least six months, maybe longer.

The August Sherry arrived in my classroom was the first year for what most of us would call “the new school.” It was really the old school which had undergone a two-year-long renovation that would see a gutting of the existing structure area by area and a reconfiguration of the space. I was not only in a remodeled classroom, I was in an area of the building which had been for the twenty-six years I’d been there the junior high, a place I rarely had occasion to visit. Everything everywhere was brand new — the furniture, the carpeting, the shiny dry erase boards, the metal locker doors still straight and undented. And it was decreed that students inhabiting this beautiful new state-of-the-art educational facility were neither to consume nor possess any food or drink outside the cafeteria.

Sherry, however, was devoted to her tea. I spoke to her about it the first day or two, since one of my hopes was to keep from irritating the difficult and mercurial principal, who was fiercely dedicated to the no food rule. Sherry was resistant to giving up her tea, defiant, actually, and after about a week it became clear to me that she needed it. Possessing that tea and taking a stand in favor of keeping well-hydrated was the one thing that she could control. I knew that if Sherry and I were to have a successful year together, both of us were going to have to give a little on the matter of the tea, with my side giving the most. And so we came to an understanding.

My colleague Brian, the history teacher down the hall, was not so accommodating of Sherry’s tea. The more he insisted she observe the no food outside the cafeteria rule, the more she clung to her need to possess, display, and even consume the tea. (She’d stopped even putting it under the desk in my classroom, instead capping it tightly and slipping it into her backpack.) I tried to talk to him about it. Couldn’t he see that the tea was the only thing in her life that she could control? Couldn’t he bend just a little? 

He couldn’t. He had a brouhaha with her every day about the tea, confrontations that escalated until she was so rude and insubordinate to him that he reported her, and she did ten days in in-school suspension. My friendship with him, which had been very warm, suffered, and when he left the district at the end of the year for a college coaching position, we didn’t even say goodbye.

Sherry had her baby in the spring. By then we had become quite fond of each other, and her class was one I looked forward to every day. I went to see her in the hospital. When she was discharged she moved in with the boyfriend, who by then was walking well with crutches but had not yet been able to return to work. He lived in another school district, and she planned to enroll in school there. When I saw her a year later, though, I learned she had been unable to do that.

I have not seen Sherry since 1998. But somehow that paper has remained among my possessions. She’ll be 30 a few days before my birthday, and her little boy will be turning 12. I have ways I can track her down — an address I got five years ago when I was doing some people search work for my high school class reunion, an address for one of her brothers. “Track her down” sounds a bit stalkerish, and I certainly don’t mean to intrude on her. I remember her as a young woman of courage and determination who was doing everything she could to manage several difficult situations. Her boyfriend, too, was facing his responsibilities and his challenges with an optimistic resolve.

I hope they’re going into 2009 happy, healthy, with a safe car and no cigarettes. And even if I don’t find out, I will use Sherry’s list of hopes as my bookmark, and say her name into the morning light every day this year.


A year ago, I wrote a meta piece about my Holidailies experience.

Two years ago, I went to a wedding.

Three years ago, I did not post on this day.

Four years ago, I wrote about the Six Goals of a Quality Life that I endeavor to reach every year.

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