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The H3O/Art of Life Blog

  • Writer's pictureThe H3O/Art of Life Blog

Growing Pains [1]

By The Reverend Ms. Denise D. Tracy

Presented by Omni Virtual University

As a child, my favorite story was “The Little Engine That Could”. I did not realize that it was the re-telling of the New Testament story about “The Good Samaritan.”[2] Three trains refused a stalled train's plea for help before the fourth, who was a "she", sets out to meet the need. She tries and tries and because she believes that by trying she can do it --she succeeds! The idea is that when we believe we can - and we work long enough and hard enough- we, too, will succeed. You know the adage: "If at first, you don't succeed, Try, try, try again." This story carries with it the idea that anyone can succeed if they just put forth the effort and persevere. Oh, how I wish that were true!

There is a new version of "The Little Train That Could", entitled " The Three Engines" that retells this story. The author readjusts the idealistic little engine and also modifies the stories of the other two. In this version, obstacles are put in the way of the two other engines. The first little engine thinks that, because she made it, the other engines should be able to do it, too. When the error of her thinking is pointed out to her, she comes to realize that they had obstacles and heavier loads. So, she and the community helped the other engines to achieve their goals.

In my role as a Middle School Tutor, I have been fascinated to learn about the issues with inequality and inequity. I've also had the opportunity to learn about A.C.E.S.- Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are some of the negative experiences that may leave a child traumatized:

  • Poverty

  • Injury

  • Death of a loved one

  • A relative in prison

  • Hunger

  • Homelessness, et al.

To begin the study of A.C.E.S, you take a test that asks about your negative experiences. You receive a score from one to ten which gives you a realistic assessment of your own burdens or baggage that might have impeded your progress on the path to success.

There was a time when teaching academic material was believed to be enough but, this is no longer the case. Instead, it is now considered a necessity, in the field of education, to understand that the academic progress of many students may be impeded by obstacles that prevent them from learning. Providing the assistance needed to overcome those obstacles is currently part of professional educational responsibilities. “Teaching academic subjects” is no longer deemed sufficient since many schools districts are changing the requirements to include such considerations. I will say that the best teachers I know have always been aware of the complexity of their students' lives.

There is also a new awareness about school discipline. A few years ago, it became clear that some students- too often students of color or those from different backgrounds- were being suspended at an abnormally higher rate and were rapidly being relegated to the "school-to-prison pipeline". This is, in part, because these excessive suspensions resulted in their missing so much instruction that they could neither succeed nor advance academically. Now, there is a new type of school discipline called "Restorative Justice". Rather than being suspended from school, a student must enter a process to explore why they did what they did; to listen to the harm they have caused; and, then to make amends. My Dad was a "law and order" kind of guy. He would have said, “ You do wrong, you get punished.” But, it is not that simple.

One day, one of my students, who struggled with behavior problems, was having a really hard time- teasing other students; not paying attention; throwing things when he thought I wasn’t looking, etc. I spoke to him twice, asking him to refrain from causing trouble. Time three, I was tempted to use harsh discipline but, instead, I called the teacher over and asked if I could take this student aside and talk to him. When we were outside in the hall, I asked him what was going on. His eyes filled with tears and he responded, “As I was leaving for school this morning, the police came. They started carrying our furniture out onto the lawn. I don’t know if my Mom is okay. I don’t know where I am supposed to go after school!” It all just tumbled out. I went to the teacher and then he and I went to the Social Worker’s Office to get some help for the beleaguered student. What if I had compounded his troubles with punishment or suspension of some kind?

Another day, a different student was morose, slouching in his seat, and not paying attention. As he was leaving the classroom, I saw that he had tears rolling down his cheeks. When I took him aside and asked if he was okay, it all poured out. His mother was waiting for a kidney transplant and her shunt for dialysis had become infected. She had been taken to the hospital by ambulance the night before. Afterward, he had put his two younger siblings to bed. In the morning- before school- he cared for his two siblings, cooked, cleaned, and got them ready for school. He hadn’t had time to study for the test that he was to take the next period. And, in addition, he didn’t know how his mother was doing or how he could go to see her. I listened to all this and then we went to get some help for him. I think the best teachers are those who have always looked -and listened - beyond academic lines. Now, we have a whole new field designed to help those who need "somebody to lean on."

I tell you these stories because there is a whole lot of new learning going on. I like learning that people are trying to make the world better and not just for the children whom we regard as having the benefits of a "care-free life" (was there ever such a thing?). Each one of us has troubles. How we learn to manage those struggles, how we are disciplined, or how we understand pain and suffering which we all have can greatly affect the long-term happiness and quality of our lives. How and if we receive unconditional help from others in our time of need makes a difference in how we see ourselves in relationship to the needs of others. Think of your own scars- the places that ache from loss or trauma. Who helped you? Who supported you? Now think for a minute: Who in your life might need support from you, right now?

For me, both school and the church have given me a bridge, a parachute, and a blanket. In 1955, our family was left homeless by a hurricane. A flood destroyed -not just my home- but my entire neighborhood. Eleven people on our street died, including my three playmates, my babysitter, and the older couple that I called Grandma and Grandpa. I walked around, for years, a wounded and vulnerable person. All of my toys were lost in the flood. When I asked where my toys were, my Dad - a "stiff upper- lip type" parent -said, "They went down the river into the ocean." For years, I walked the beaches of Connecticut, searching for pieces of my "Betsy Wetsy" doll. I was a child who needed help. It took 50 years for me to understand what had happened to me and I learned that from my school tutoring job.

It took years for my family to recover, financially, from losing our home. When I got upset about being poor; about "doing without"; about the nightmares I had -and still have- every August; about the struggle of my family to survive; my Mother had a song she would sing to us, "Count your blessings, Name them one by one." She would have my sisters and I think of all that we did have. She would say, think of what is here not what is not. It did help. As I've learned about these new fields of study, in my role as Tutor, I have been able to work on healing myself, I will never be able to watch the evening news when they cover hurricanes. But, I know why that is so.

In times after crises, the church in America has experienced a resurgence in potential growth. After World War II, religious congregations of every stripe grew from people who wanted to make sense of a World War that involved fascism and a type of hatred that touched everyone. A similar resurgence occurred after 9/11. The pews were filled with people who wanted to understand how such a situation could happen.

I think we are on the edge of another such time. The Pandemic has created a world of trauma, loss, and danger. As people return to more active lives, they will seek places for reassurance and places where it is safe to ask and find answers to difficult questions. Some of you already are in the midst of such a process. What comfort are you seeking? What connections will help you heal from the past months? What exactly is normal? Do we really want the "old normal" back? Is there a "new normal" that might be better than the old one?

The UUCC congregation pledges: "To seek the truth in Love and to help one another."[3] Will we as a community- make the conscious choice to combine our efforts to achieve these lofty goals?

Amen. Shalom. And Blessed Be.


[1] An edited excerpt of a sermon,

"Count Your Blessings", by Rev.Ms. Denise D. Tracy.

[2] Luke 10:25-37 KJV

[3] "Love is the spirit of this church

And service is our prayer.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another.*

Recommended Readings:

"The Little Engine That Could" Watty Piper

"The Three Engines" Bob McKinnon

"The New Normal: A Roadmap to Resilience in the Pandemic Era" Jennifer Ashton.

"The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice" Michael L. Hadley

"The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice" Fania E. Davis

"Lost at School" Ross W. Green, Ph.D. Narrated by Nick Podehl

Musical Selections

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