A Work of Heart
Put your heart into it. I have no idea where I heard that first. Probably at a time in my life when I didn’t need anyone telling me what to do so I just let it go. Give it your all. Give it all of you. I get the meaning. And, you know I have a story for it. This is a long one. Get your coffee, people.
In my other life, I was a social worker in a public middle school in Northern Virginia. I loved everything about my work. I had colleagues I could learn from and easily collaborate with. I had the opportunity to meet parents and kids in the community in which I worked and lived. And I had summers off. I mean, what is not to love about that? I will admit that some cases and situations were more challenging than others, so I found myself often shooting from the hip just to try and see what would work. One student, who I’ll name Derek to keep his identity private, just couldn’t see the light. He had experienced so much for someone so young. Parents incarcerated. Bouts of homelessness and time in the foster care system. A grandparent who reluctantly took him in, reminding him each and every day what a problem he was and would always be. Too many transitions. Failing grades in multiple schools. Fights and arguments with teachers and peers. And a damning lack of confidence in self.
I thought Derek was delightful. He was personable and open. He was insightful and willing to think about what I asked and try new things. Despite his poor grades, he was so creative and had beautiful penmanship. He was a whiz at math and when I made him do his homework in my office after school, it was perfect. He could sing and dance. He was a talented athlete. And he had a million dollar smile. But he didn’t see any of this. He only saw what was wrong and he truly believed that his life was always going to be exactly how he viewed it now - a failure.
What do you do with that? I decided to introduce Derek to words of wisdom. One of my previous posts is about my love for inspirational words and thoughts. I told him that there are people out there who have said some pretty wonderful things. If we listen carefully we’ll be able to hear it, and understand it, and use it for our own lives. I bought him a blank book and I filled in some of the pages with quotes that I hand wrote in different colors. I cut out pretty images from magazines and made lists - 10 things to say to yourself when you are feeling down, or 10 things to do when you can’t sleep. I filled the book about ½ way before presenting it to him and left a little note in the front that said “inspiration for you, from Mrs. Levitt”. One teacher saw what I was doing and essentially said “I can’t believe you are spending so much time on that kid.” I guess everybody didn’t see what I saw in Derek.
I presented Derek with the book and he was - surprised. He didn’t say thank you. He didn’t know what to do with it. He said he didn’t get many presents so that was part of his surprise. I told him to read it and add his own things to it. It could be whatever he wanted. And the bell rang and he was out the door. A few days later, I found myself sitting in a student desk, facing a rather intimidating math teacher. I felt like a student in detention, having been summoned to her classroom immediately. She pulled out of her drawer the notebook that I had given to Derek. It was already looking pretty ragged. She explained that she had been forced to confiscate it because he wouldn’t pay attention to her. He was so upset about having it taken away, he argued with her and ended up getting lunch detention. Uh, not what I wanted the book to do for him, but ok. She didn’t even know what it contained at the time of confiscation but curiosity had her opening it once her classroom was empty. She said she started to cry when she saw it. She, too, saw the light that was Derek, and thanked me for taking the time to creatively work with him. She asked me to please be the one to give him the book back (and tell him to keep it someplace safe during class or he'd get another detention).
I ran out to the bus lanes to catch students leaving for the day and found Derek. I showed him that I had his book and he happily retrieved it. He did not say thank you, but he promised to not lose it ever again and tackled me with a bear hug before I had time to object.
I put my heart into my work, not just with Derek but with all of my students and families. I couldn't help it. It mattered. Putting my heart into it is how I honored the opportunity I had been given, which was to help the people who came to me for help. Putting my heart into it was also fundamentally about how I honored myself. We get one precious life. Why NOT give it everything you have that matters? Why not find the pieces of your own life and experiences that speak the most to you, and use those as your guide?
Whatever it is that matters most to you - it can and should be a guide to how you approach tasks. How you approach relationships. How you conduct yourself and your work. And how you live your life. Leading with your heart is sharing with people on the deepest level what moves you and makes you YOU. It reveals your values. And when people know and understand your values, they are able to evaluate immediately whether or not you are the right person for them, or for the task at hand. Remember, we don’t ever apologize for what we care about and who we are. We lead with it. And we welcome others to follow. Following your heart is actually way easier than trying copy the direction of others. And it can be super-rewarding.
I only worked with Derek for a few more weeks after giving him the journal, as the school year came to an end. I looked forward to seeing him in September but learned that he had been sent to live with another relative in another state. I don’t know what happened to Derek. I hope he found his way. I hope the book of inspirational quotes that I shared with him from my heart had a little something to do with it.