banner for advent 2015

Editor’s Note: As part of our “Comfort and Joy” Advent/Christmas blog series, missioner Maeve Gallagher shares an experience of comfort during a time of trial. 

In the months leading up to my time in Guatemala people would often ask me if I planned on teaching at Valley of the Angels. “I’m open to everything but teaching,” I replied. “I’d make a horrible teacher.” Most people nodded in understanding; we have all had amazing and awful teachers in our lives. Everyone knows what a difference a good teacher can make in the education of a child.

Imagine my surprise then when I received word that Valley desperately needed elementary school English teachers due to unforeseen circumstances with their regular English teacher. So I did what my call to mission asked me to do: I started teaching English to third, fourth, and sixth grade three times a week. I was very poorly prepared for what the future months held.

Two of Maeve's third grade students

Two of Maeve’s third grade students

My fourth grade class this past school year was small, with just 12 students, but that doesn’t mean they were any easier to manage. Several of the most energetic boys and girls on campus were in my class, and one student in particular tested my patience every day with his regular interruptions, outbursts, and refusal to do the work.

Schools in Guatemala generally run from January to October. I found myself struggling to invest myself in my lesson plans and students this past September. I was burnt out and eagerly counted down the days until final exams.

One day in mid-September I was having a particularly hard class period with my fourth graders. We were doing a vocabulary game that I thought they would enjoy, but like all best laid plans, they informed me that they didn’t want to play this “boring” game. My most patience-testing student refused to play and sat at his desk doodling.

At the end of my rope, I walked back over to my desk and silently begged the Holy Spirit to give me the strength to endure the remaining 20 minutes of class without bursting into tears. I felt like a complete failure as a teacher.

Sensing my desperation, my student Esther came up to me and enveloped my waist in a hug. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay.” I let myself relax into her hug and wrapped my arms around her. Tears leaked out the corners of my eyes.

Esther is a low-performing student who dislikes speaking in class. She is shy and whispers at all times. She daydreams and does other work in class because she is perpetually behind on her homework. I’m often tough on her because I know she’s smart and I expect better work from her. Needless to say, she was the last person I imagined would hug me.

In that brief moment I felt peace and selfless, true love from Esther. It was only a moment but it gave me the strength to complete the day’s classes, and the love to finish out the year.

Maeve with her fourth grade girls

Maeve with her fourth grade girls

I wish I could say that after this hug I was renewed in my role as an educator and my students were perfectly behaved angels for the rest of the year, but we all know that’s not how it works. I still struggled with being patient toward my students, but sometimes Esther and I would make eye contact during class and give each other secret smiles.

Her hug was a reminder to be patient with others and to give myself permission to be patient with my own imperfections. I think back to that moment often. Esther will never understand how much her simple act of kindness meant to me, but I hope she understands the comfort a small gesture can bring in a moment of distress.

In the video below, Maeve shares this story about Esther and some of her other experiences at Valley of the Angels:

If you are reading this post through an email, click here for the video.

Question for reflection: During this time of waiting and anticipation, how can you be patient with yourself and others?

Read more stories of “Comfort and Joy”

Donate to FMS this Christmas:
Share the gift of tenderness on mission