“I’m going to take my family on vacation this summer, Mr. Springer,” said Lily, packing her belongings at the end of school one day.
As a teacher, I was used to hearing kids’ outlandish tales. “That’s nice, Lily. Where are you planning to go? I asked my reserved 2nd-grade student, half expecting her to tell me she had plans for an elephant ride in Africa or a trip in a spaceship to the moon.
“We’ve never taken a trip before. I’m going to take my family to Crescent City.”
Crescent City is eighty-five miles north, with a population of just over 6,000 people. It’s not a place that most people would dream of going on vacation. While I had always found Lily to be an honest child, I think it was the sincerity in her voice that made me wonder if she could be telling me the truth. “Really? What do you mean you’re taking your family?”
“I’m going to pay for the trip,” she said with certainty.
I felt another wave of skepticism, but I didn’t want to burst her bubble and tell her that 2nd-graders couldn’t possibly take their family anywhere. “Trips cost a lot of money, Lily. How would you pay for it?”
“I’m doing chores at home,” she said as if that should put an end to my questions.
The 3:00 bell rang, and I went through the daily reminders with the class. “Make sure you pick up around your desk. Does everybody have their math homework? Oh, and remind your parents to fill out your permission slip for the field trip next week. If you don’t return it by Wednesday, then you can’t go. It would be sad if you had to miss out. Do you all understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Springer,” the students answered in unison.
“Wait, we’re going on a field trip tomorrow?” asked Gabriel.
I laughed to myself, knowing that it didn’t matter how many times we had already discussed the field trip. I had long ago accepted that some students either weren’t focused or wouldn’t process the information.
“Gabriel, we’re not going tomorrow,” began Heather. “The field trip to the pumpkin patch isn’t until next Friday. You have to bring one dollar if you want a pumpkin. You’re supposed to have your field trip form turned in by Wednesday.”
Certain things repeated themselves day after day in a classroom. There will always be kids who don’t get the information by the third or fourth try and others who soak up every nugget of information. They take it upon themselves to inform their classmates about all the details. Heather was an excellent student, the type of child who remembered what I had said precisely about everything for the last month. She reminded me of Radar, from the television show, M*A*S*H. I pictured her someday being a manager or a well-paid administrative assistant, keeping her boss on track.
When everyone was ready, Brian led the line for those children who were attending the after-school program. I guided the remainder of the class down the hall to meet their families in front of the school. As we trudged along, I noticed that Lily was near the front of the line. “So, Lily, what kind of chores are you doing around the house?” I asked.
“I vacuum, do the dishes, fold the laundry, and sweep the kitchen.”
“That’s great. It sounds like you’re working hard. Do you know how much money you have to raise?”
“$300. My mom said it costs that much to stay in the hotel and to take my family out to dinner.”
I quickly did some mental math and realized that her figures were probably in the neighborhood of the actual costs. Was it possible that a second-grader had devised this goal on her own? “Don’t you mean you’re going to help your mom pay for the trip?
“No, I’m paying for the whole trip,” she insisted.
I was intrigued and wanted to know more, but now it was time to say goodbye, as we’d reached the front of the school. I released the children into their parents’ care.
I headed for the staff room to use the bathroom. One of the prerequisites of teaching in elementary school is that you must hold your bladder for extended periods. I walked in and saw there was a small line forming in front of the bathroom. “How was your day, Pete?” asked my colleague, Beth Masters, a veteran of twenty-five years teaching. “My kids were wild today. I think the wind sets them off.”
“We had a pretty good day. Lily just told me a story about her plans to take her family on a trip.” I remembered that Beth had taught Lily the year before, and I retold the story of Lily’s intentions. “Do you think they may have never taken a vacation together?”
Beth said, “It could be. I don’t think they have a lot. Lily’s mom has all of those mouths to feed. It has to be tough. I know her mom’s a nurse, doing the best she can.”
I remembered Lily had several older siblings. I didn’t know the family well, but I recalled seeing them at some school basketball games. Lily’s brother, Justin, played with my son on the team. I had a memory of Lily’s family piling in and out of their sizeable blue van before and after those 5th-6th-grade games. It seemed like there would typically be six or seven family members in attendance. It made an impression on me because it was unusual to see so many people supporting one child.
“I don’t know much about them,” I said. “Lily’s mom seems very private.”
“She’s a quiet one,” Beth replied, “but I’ve got to commend her for keeping that family together.”
I didn’t know the exact circumstances, but I remembered Lily’s mom telling me the father was no longer in the picture.
While we were waiting, Beth added. “I taught Lily’s older sister, Martina, a couple of years ago. I didn’t have much contact with the mother when Martina was in my class. Let me know how this turns out.”
“I will. I want Lily’s family to be able to take this trip.”
The following day, I got a chance to continue my conversation with Lily. The rest of the class had gone out to recess, and she was finishing her snack at her desk. “Lily, I wanted to ask you a few more questions about your trip. If you don’t mind my asking, how much money do you still have to raise?”
“I’ve saved $120 so far.”
“How long have you been working on this?” I asked, knowing that it was November and still the first part of the school year.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Since school started, I guess.”
“I think it’s pretty awesome that you are doing this for your family. I hope you don’t mind if I check in with you once in a while to see how it’s going.”
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling back at me.
When I got home that night, I told my wife, Debbie, about Lily’s selflessness. “If Lily can’t raise the money they need for the trip, I want to help them out. My family went on so many trips together when we were kids.” I thought of my three older brothers and how my parents never thought twice about traveling across the country with all of us in our station wagon. It was something that I took for granted when I was a child, and I didn’t realize (at the time) how lucky we were to share in so many of these experiences.
“Are you sure her mom would be open to you giving them money?” Debbie asked. “She might have too much pride to accept it. I know you want to help, but you have to be sensitive to the family.”
“I’ve thought about that, and I’m not sure how she’d take it. I think the thing to do is to wait and see if Lily can raise the money. Can you believe this little girl devised this goal herself?”
In one sense, I was surprised, realizing that the circumstances were unusual. On the other hand, I knew children have remarkably kind hearts. I had to consider that everything was what it appeared to be.
As the weeks turned into months, and the school year continued, I occasionally checked in privately with Lily to see how things were progressing. Each time I asked, she seemed proud to report back to me. “I’m getting closer. My mom tells me I can do it.”
It was now the end of May, and school would be out in two weeks. I had told myself before that if Lily hadn’t raised the money by the first of June, I would give her mom a call to offer my help.
The next day, after I took my class to lunch, Lily returned to the room while I was working. I was used to kids coming back at lunchtime to grab a coat or a ball before they went out to lunch recess, so I didn’t find it unusual. My concentration was on the letter I was typing to my students’ parents. I looked up in surprise to see her standing so close. “Do you need something, Lily? Can I help you?”
After a few seconds of silence, she sheepishly said, “I did it.”
“I raised the money for our trip.”
I got out of my chair, stood up, and opened my arms to show that I wanted to hug her. She understood my gesture and immediately came and squeezed me tightly. “I’m so proud of you, Lily. You are a determined little girl. What a nice thing you have done for your family.” She didn’t say anything, but I could tell by the enormous grin on her face that she was proud of herself.
On the last day of school, I gave out my address to my students as had become my custom. I encouraged them to write a letter in the summer telling me about their happenings. By the end of the day, I knew most papers would be lost or forgotten, but I continued this tradition as every summer, I would hear from two or three of my students.
I secretly hoped that Lily would write me a note about her family’s trip. Unfortunately, no letter came from her that summer. I didn’t see her much the following school year, and I never had the ideal situation to talk to her privately to see if their trip had been a success. Over the years, I thought less and less about this event, but occasionally when I was reminiscing about former students, her act of kindness would cross my mind.
Several years later, I stopped at a local burger restaurant to get dinner on my way home from work one night. When I walked in, Lily was working behind the counter. Since I live in the same city that I taught for thirty-one years, it’s not unusual to run into former students. She came out from behind the cash register and gave me a warm hug.
I said, “It’s so good to see you, Lily. What year are you in school now?”
“I’m a senior,” she answered grinning.
“So, what have you been up to? How long have you been working here?”
“Since last year. I decided I wanted to get a car.”
I nodded and remembered the feeling of excitement of buying my first vehicle, a bright, pumpkin orange Chevy Nova. “How long will it be until you’re able to do that?”
“Oh, I already bought it,” she said with a touch of pride.
I would have liked to talk more and ask her if she was planning on going to college, but I realized that she was working and other people behind me wanted service. I ordered and moved out of the way. When my food was ready, she was still waiting on other customers. I gave a quick wave to her and left. I got into my car and fought back the tears as my thoughts immediately returned to that shy little girl with a big heart I taught in 2nd grade. She had grown into a responsible, young adult and probably had no idea how her act of kindness toward her family inspired me.
Since my encounter with Lily at the fast-food restaurant a decade ago, I decided to write a book about my life as a teacher entitled, They Call Me Mom. https://www.amazon.com/They-Call-Mom-Difference-Elementary/dp/1977200052 I wanted to include Lily’s story in my book, but I felt that I should reach out and ask if I could share it. We had become friends on Facebook in the interim, and I wrote to Lily and told her my desire to include her story in my book. I asked if I could send the part that pertained to her to see if I had accurately captured the gist of it.
After reading my memories, she wrote me back and wanted me to know that her family took that trip to Crescent City. She also remembered that her mom had paid for the family’s vacation. Her mom wanted Lily to keep the money she had raised rather than spending it on the family. Lily recalled using some of the money on clothes for herself. She also wanted me to know that I had been one of her favorite teachers and had many good memories from being in my class.
She described how she would be graduating later that year from college after taking medical assistant classes. Lily was pleased that I had included her story and surprised to be in a book because she never pictured herself affecting another person that way. One of the ironies of teaching for me was that while I was trying to educate children and be a positive role model, they frequently taught me through their actions about heart, kindness, and generosity.
Lily is now a medical assistant. I was touched a few years ago when she invited me to her housewarming party. I proudly attended and shared in her joy.
Writer’s Note: Out of respect and privacy to this family, I have changed the names. The story is true, and I have tried to recapture it as best as I can remember.