the best little shrub
there will be people who used their fingers to scrape up whatever was left in the rubble and turned it into something beautiful.
The only "real" job I've had was as a teacher. And a lot of times, I looked around and wondered if that was really enough. It wasn't fancy or entrepreneurial or revered. I wondered if my work mattered. I know now that for sure, it did. And I'm sure because I know now that each of us has a thing. Some of us even get multiple things but there's always something—some way we can help, some work we can dirty our hands with. There is always something we can do.
My students' schedules read Language Arts but what I loved to teach was social justice. Every book I assigned, every story we read, every time I asked them to write, the focus was on ways we could learn to love other people. And in the process, ways we could learn to love ourselves.
We read about a young man with craniofacial abnormality, a girl who'd been raped and couldn't bring herself to tell, an elephant trainer abused by the caste system in India. We read about the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan and the Holocaust and the rise of hip-hop and civil disobedience and a girl who came from nothing and a boy who moved to the U.S. from China and never felt that he fit. We spent four months taking in everything we could about the Civil Rights Movement. We studied religions of the world so we could be more tolerant and wrote about what we'd do if we could somehow change the world.
I wanted them to know.
I wanted them to KNOW.
To know that yes there will be adversity. That nothing has been given without a fight. That there will be maltreatment and fear and terror and awful, awful days. But for every one of those, there will be people who survived. There will be people who used their fingers to scrape up whatever was left in the rubble and turned it into something beautiful. That they can be part of the change.
I wanted them to know.
I doubt I can describe my favorite thing to teach.
That's a lie. It was Civil Rights.
Every single story made a difference. Everything they wrote left a mark.
I believed that they were changed in some way after seeing all that—after realizing that they weren't the only ones who felt forgotten and out of control. That other people had been there too. And they'd still turned into flowers out of all that dirt.
The idea is that you can secure your freedom. That you can work for it. March for it. Fight for it. That we control what we do with our heartbreak.
That if we believe we are worth it, we can ask for more.
One of my very favorite pieces to teach was Your Life’s Blueprint, a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered to Barratt Junior High School in 1967.
He told the students they should have,
"A deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth and that your life has ultimate significance.”
I’d read those words aloud and survey the room to find somber faces. Sometimes tiny tears would round the corners of their eyes because it hurts to hear someone say something that really ought to be true.
I knew that it was a struggle for them to believe it. To know that they were somebody. And with Dr. King’s help, I was aiming to remind them.
He went on to say,
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.”
By this point, I was always the one with tears in my eyes.
“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
Be the best of whatever you are. Even if you fear it's not enough.
By this point, their eyes were always down. Because it meant something. Because in that moment, they knew. Or at the very least, they hoped.
They believed for a minute that maybe it was OK not to have been born to the best parents or in the best place. That maybe it was fine not to know as much as everybody else in class. That maybe they didn’t have to get good grades or have lots of friends or even have to smell good to be worthwhile. That just maybe he was talking to kids just like them. And that things could be alright.
For a minute, they wondered if they could really make mistakes and get in trouble and carry a mountain of hurt on their backs and still be somebody.
Still, you’re somebody.
Maybe you’re the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
And maybe, just as you are, that’s enough.
It’s reflecting on times like these that make me miss the classroom so much it hurts. I miss the opportunity to remind those broken hearts how much they mattered. I miss the chance to tell them that no matter how hard it’s been or how hard it gets or how often they feel they’ve missed the mark, they are capable of greatness. And they are enough all on their own.
I miss it terribly.
And yet, there’s a little smile on my face because I realize I can still say it whenever I want to.
So listen up:
You’re really important.
There’s something that you’re here to do.
You know it and I know it.
Maybe you don’t know what the thing is. That’s OK.
Keep looking. You'll find it.
Maybe when you’re watching a commercial or browsing Pinterest or walking down the street, you feel a little heart tug.
Follow it. Learn more. Do the thing that makes you flutter.
You don’t have to be the best.
For reals. You seriously don’t.
You don’t have to be the smartest or the prettiest or have the best eyebrows.
You don't have to be widely accepted or even tolerated to do something that matters.
I’m willing to bet you can still do big stuff without those things.
Maybe you’ll write a song. Maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll write a book. Maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll write a letter or an Instagram post or a post-it note. That will be enough.
You don’t have to do it big for it to count.
And you certainly don’t have to stay quiet.
Be the shrub on the side of the hill and shine brightly.
Tell everyone your name. Greet them with a hello and a warm smile. Stand up. Speak out. Let the world know why you’re here.
I know, I know. Times get hard and platitudes don't count for much.
So take the time you need.
Cry. Sleep too much. Wallow and eat bad food.
March and cry and resist and cry and write and call and cry again. Then eat more bad food.
Your gifts aren't going anywhere. That thing you're meant to do is yours. Your voice and your hands and your feet are yours. So if you have to set it aside for a while just to take care, then do it.
You're enough then too.
You needn’t be the fanciest or the most prestigious.
Followers and friend counts and retweets don’t count for much.
Be the best little shrub you can be.
Because it’s enough.
You are important. And from wherever you are, you can do something.
You’re enough, little shrub.
You really truly are.