I am the oldest of two daughters born to deaf parents in a small Wisconsin farm town. As soon as I could talk, I was serving as my parents’ interpreter through sign language – connecting them with the hearing world. Life from an early age was filled with adult responsibilities, worries, and decisions. Instead of the childhood I craved, mine was filled with heaviness and loss.
I feared the dad who everybody loved, but whose anger behind closed doors would escalate into yelling, physical intimidation, and abuse for my mom. Under the kitchen table is where my mom, sister, and I would hide, hoping we would be invisible and therefore safe. My parents divorced when I was 6, and I was caught in the middle of their hurt and anger.
At the start of my 4th-grade year, we were dropped off at a local motel – my mom, sister and me with a U-Haul containing everything we owned. No car, no job, no home, and very little money. This kind of poverty meant asking strangers for money, stealing quarters out of the community washing machine for groceries, asking friends for rides, food stamps and free lunch, handling late bills and bounced checks, and going without meals and holidays. We were lonely and scared kids. We worried about our mom who faced bouts of depression and retreated to her bed for days with suicide threats, and ultimately spent time away from us in the psychiatric ward – as I celebrated my 12th birthday. Our mom did her best to provide for us by taking a job on the night shift, but that meant leaving us alone to care for ourselves. I felt isolated and responsible for my sister and me. My life seemed so different than the other kids I knew – I felt like an outsider.
Although life was very difficult, I loved my parents. As an adult, I can see that their treatment of us was due to their own broken childhoods, but at that time, it all resulted in feelings of shame, which I carried around like a heavy weight. I felt helpless and alone…I just wasn’t good enough. And the messages my sister and I received were very clear: don’t burden others with your problems, don’t ask for help, don’t let people know how bad it really is. You are supposed to keep it all hidden…all of it…because what would people think if they knew?
Fortunately for me, there was school: the place I felt most happy, safe, and valued. It all started with my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Shumate, who told me I was special and made me feel cared for and seen; I no longer needed to be invisible. It was my teachers who noticed my love of math, set aside library books just for me, explained what to do the first time I got my period, hugged me, encouraged me, and believed in me. They saw me as more than a student – they said I was kind, generous, smart, hard-working, and a good friend. When I ask the hard question, “Where was Jesus during my childhood?” I now picture a loving, heavenly father handing me – his precious daughter – into the hands of my teachers. “I’m giving Linda to you. Please show her how much I love her…how I’ve given her unique gifts…how she’s created in my image…speak life into her.” From teacher to teacher, he placed me into caring hands each year. It was through those teachers that God began to call me out from “under that kitchen table” where I hid in my fear, shame and loneliness, and instead gave me an invitation to come to His table where I would find true peace, grace, and love.
Life after college looked “normal” – family, home, church, work, kids’ events, vacations…everything I wanted growing up. But God had other plans for me, and nudged me to attend an informational meeting about School Partners at Kensington. Soon, I found myself on the way to Ms. Martin’s classroom, praying all the way and wondering what I had to offer. I walked into her classroom and saw a sea of 44 children. Over the next year and a half, I would see myself in those students with their broken homes, hurts and fears, and be reminded of the blessings I received in the classroom as a child. After a retreat in 2015, God invited me on a life-changing journey: allow your mess to become your message.
Then came the invitation to join the School Partners staff. I believe that God had been preparing me for this change to bring me back to the place I loved as a child. It would mean giving up my job of 27 years with all its security, benefits, and income. It would mean trusting that God could really use me, that he was truly calling me to follow Him into these under-resourced schools. I did it! And, now I get to share the love of Jesus in our partner schools every day – just like my teachers did for me. This is my purpose – born out of my pain.
Want to find out more about School Partners, and making a difference in the lives of local students? Go to kensingtonchurch.org/school-partners or email Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org about volunteer opportunities.