When I left the field of college fundraising to concentrate on a midlife adventure as a freelance writer, I couldn't have been more surprised when the chance to work as a part-time preschool teacher turned out to be the perfect way to supplement my new career.
With no formal training in early childhood education, I found myself spending 15 hours a week doing the hokeypokey, tying shoes, and talking about "safe hands." I spent the rest of my time sitting alone in front of the computer, trying to make a living with my words.
Toward the end of last year, one of my students went through a particularly challenging naptime phase. Not wanting to miss a thing, Kristen warded off sleep by chatting, singing, or trying to see how many acrobatic moves she could do within the confines of her cot.
Her routine required endless patience and a good supply of energy. My repertoire of back-rubbing and cheek-stroking met with success about one time out of five. Usually I just ended up staring back into bright brown eyes that watched and waited to see what we might do next.
One afternoon I tried a different tactic. I tucked Kristen in with her baby doll, got a steady head-rubbing rhythm going, and suggested that a nap would provide her with extra energy when she woke up.
I followed this by saying, "Do you know what my mom always said to me before I went to sleep? She said, 'Good night, sweet dreams, I love you.' "
Kristen thought about that, smiled, and repeated the words to me. Eventually, finally, she drifted off to sleep. I can't take credit for finding the magic key that worked for Kristen all the time, every time, but our little good-night ritual did seem to help her settle down more often than not as the school year came to a close.
Kristen graduated to one of the pre-K classrooms while I stayed on with a new batch of little ones, but we retained a special bond. We always stopped to share a quick hug when we passed on the playground, and she would tell anyone within earshot, "Mrs. Collins is my bestest friend."
When I had the chance to fill in for one of her new teachers, we had a great reunion.
We sat beside each other during snack and at circle time, and she spent most of the morning asking me to come and look at whatever she had just written, drawn, or made.
I had to smile when she asked, "Will you lie down with me at naptime?"
Once the lights were out, I pulled her quilt around her shoulders and whispered, "It's been a really long time since you and I were together for nap. Do you remember our special words?"
"I say them with Mommy and Daddy every night."
"You do? Still?"
"Yeah, I do. 'Good night, sweet dreams, I love you.' Every night."
I remember when my feelings of professional success came from someone handing me a big check that brought me a few steps closer to an all-important dollar goal. In an instant, it was clear that 15 years of fundraising achievements didn't hold a candle to hearing that a cherished part of my past had made its way into the life of a little girl and her family miles and years away from my own childhood.
Million-dollar gifts are nice. Knowing what it feels like to make a difference is priceless.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society