Bright Spirit: A Story of Overcomers

Bright Spirit evident in a painting by a child
Detail from a 1990 drawing made for me by Martha.

Martha (not her real name) was an expert at twirling circles on the concrete schoolyard we stood on together fleetingly that fall. On Halloween, she was a princess. On most other days, a serious painter.

When I met her back in 1990, three years before I earned my teaching degree, while working as a paraprofessional with my local board of education, Martha had failed first grade a couple of times and attended seven schools. She couldn’t read, but did a great job of selling me on her love of books – page after page, picture after picture. Martha was devoted to stories and had gone to lengths memorizing a whole array of them.

I could feel her tenacious, bright spirit: this little girl was an overcomer.

One of the things I looked forward to most each day in that job was seeing Martha, because I got such a kick out of her playful, zany energy; and more importantly, I imagined that, somehow, I could help her graduate from pretending to read to actually doing it. I just needed a little more time, and professional development.

But here’s the part of the story that really left its mark on me.

Shortly after Halloween, I found out that Martha would be leaving the school. It had nothing to do with her academic progress, and everything to do with the fact that her mother was being released from jail. Again. Given the choice of staying with the foster family that was caring for her, and returning to the parent who had left her alone to survive on ketchup, the little girl wanted her mother.

Well, who wouldn’t.

I think that moment showed me more about human nature than any degree program I ever invested in.

To Martha, her mother was Snow White, and returning to her was a dream come true. I remember the girl telling me how wonderful it was going to be. Magnetically, she was drawn home to her biological parent, and all the patterns forged in that primary relationship.

What I experienced in that moment was a glimpse of a bigger story that still informs my life each day. Only I’ve come to see it differently than I once did.

Back then, I felt shocked and saddened when I thought of Martha’s lot in life and plight. I thought of the irony that the system favoured placing children with their biological parents, even when those parents were “messed up, negligent abandoners”. I felt pity for a smart little girl who didn’t have the objectivity to see that her foster family loved and nourished her, and that staying in one school instead of many offered the stability required for her learning issues to be addressed. I thought, “If only she could live with her foster family and simply visit her mother. If only she could stay here at this school, where people know her and care for her learning. If only Martha could fully see.”

It would take years for me to recognize that Martha’s story is my story, too, only I just had different surface details and circumstances.

Like Martha, and frankly pretty much anyone else I’ve ever known, I’ve had a habit of succumbing to the strange and powerful pull of the familiar. I understand what it’s like to be drawn back repeatedly to people, situations, and patterns of behaviour that I’m used to. Many of those patterns have served me well; but to be clear, some significant old patterns have not.

What’s more…

I also relate to the abandoning, imprisoned parent in Martha’s story, because I’ve known what it’s like to abandon myself at various critical junctures in my life, and the feelings of soul-deadening constriction that ensue from poor choices.

I know what it’s like to be smart and not fully see.

At twenty-five, a young mother myself, hugging that child goodbye, I had no idea what our moment in time would leave to me. I would go on for decades to teach things our culture values: language arts, elementary mathematics, science, social studies, and high school English. Anyone looking at me would say I did well. I taught people how to write and read stories, and to some extent, how to read the world.

But only at a certain point did I have the courage to shed light on my own blind spots.

That point came when I knew I needed to make changes, to become unstuck in self-defeating patterns that others may never have seen, but I was waking up to. My soul was speaking to me like that twirling little girl in the schoolyard, saying, “It’s going to be wonderful.” Only this time, in order to truly make it so, I knew I would have to do some things differently.

As a not-so-young adult, I realized I had to decide for wonderful, open-eyed. I had to commit to it – and to myself, and the work required.

My intention in sharing this is not to single myself out with dramatic flair, but simply to illustrate an innate and basic human tendency.

I resonate deeply with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s words, that “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Part of our humanness is to come into this world blind for a while. It takes moments of decision and the right support to help us see.

Developing and deepening your conscious awareness is not something that can be done with the click of a button. Attuning to your own soul’s purpose and wishes takes time. It takes a willingness to transform.

Martha must be almost 40 now. My wish for her is that she learned to read – first books, and yes, the world, and then, eventually, with time and courage, herself: an ongoing journey for any of us. My wish is that she has found the right modalities and people along the way to help her. I wish the same for her mother. May they both be happy.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to finding help and support.

I am not a psychotherapist or a psychologist. Those professionals draw upon a range of powerful modalities as appropriate to certain situations, including mental illness. Often therapeutic approaches work harmoniously alongside other healing paths.

As a transformational life coach, I offer a vision-based way of helping that I have seen work many times.

The experience with each individual is fully customized, as no two people are alike. In clarifying and taking action to bring a vision into form, old limiting patterns come up for release and re-patterning. I teach proven ways of helping with that. This is not the work of therapy, which tends to focus on gaining valuable insights from the past in order to effect change; in coaching, our focus is primarily on shaping the future.

The goal? Bringing your vision into form, of course — and even more importantly, a greater sense of freedom, authenticity, and joy.

Celebrating five years of coaching and almost three decades in education, I’ve come to realize that I never left teaching when I stepped out of an institution to follow my heart. I couldn’t keep myself from learning and growing.

I simply had to discover that transformation is my favourite subject to teach.

Whether I am writing about it, coaching others in it, speaking on it, engaging in ongoing professional development, or doing the work of transformation myself, I celebrate the overcomers: that spirited, bright Martha in each of us.

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