FEATURE COLUMN – A hug between two sisters may not seem like a remarkable or unique occurrence. But for those of us who witnessed this hug on that day, it was awe-inspiring, unexpected and a tad miraculous.
Weeks earlier, Jayse Miller entered the Desert Hills High School lecture hall with her boyfriend, early for class and eagerly chatting.
“I have a twin,” she said with a smirk.
“Not identical, I hope!” I joked, but slightly serious as such things tend to creep me out.
“No,” she laughed. “We couldn’t be more different.”
That statement, I came to find out, was much more painful than our short conversation could convey. Minutes later her sister, Aspen, arrived. The two sat several seats, and seemingly worlds, apart. An outsider would have thought the two had never met.
The classroom soon filled with close to 30 students. I glanced at the clock. 3:05 p.m. A few minutes late for a first day, but not too bad.
“Welcome,” I said, “to the School of Life!”
I began my usual presentation about how awesome it was to see everyone, how privileged they were to have this opportunity, and how this program, if they let it, would change their lives. My enthusiasm fell upon a sea of skeptical teenage faces. I didn’t blame them. For most of these kids, their attendance was a consequence of too many absences or tardiness. With the exception of a few returning students, this class was overwhelmingly viewed as a punishment. I smiled to myself, taking a mental “before” picture of the group.
As I passed out the first day’s surveys, I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to the twins. Both were slender and beautiful, but that was about where their similarities ended. Jayse had gorgeous dark brown hair and glasses, was kind and seemingly studious. Aspen, on the other hand, had a confidence and social grace equally matched to her fashion sense and flowing golden brown hairstyle. They could maybe pass for cousins, I thought.
I passed a stack of books to each row. “These,” I explained, “are the textbooks for the School of Life.”
I went over the list of A’s inside: Appreciation, Assist, Attitude, Aim, Associate, Align, Action, Avoid, Adapt, Always. They were less than impressed. Collectively, the students’ fidgeting and sighs communicated that they had an A for me as well — Apathy. Little did they know how quickly that would change; how quickly they would change.
Six hours. That’s all we as instructors get: Six short, precious hours spread between three weekly after-school sessions of class. In that time, the students write letters of gratitude, read chapters from their books, listen to inspiring stories from guest speakers and instructors, play games, set goals and most importantly, grow as human beings. After those three weeks, they come to a fourth session of class and present a project demonstrating the A’s and what they got out of the program. This is everyone’s favorite day. Talent is displayed, emotions are high and all the adults in the room are beaming with pride.
This day was no different.
“I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away, fire away. You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium…” Jayse’s voice broke slightly as she sang the words so close to her heart. As the last few moments of music played, she looked out at the same sea of teenagers I had faced on the first day. This time, however, they were entirely transfixed, hanging on each haunting and ethereal note. Jayse went on to speak of obstacles, heartache, triumph and love. She fought back tears as she displayed a depth well beyond her years.
Less than an hour later, it was her sister’s turn. Aspen went to the front of the room, unfolded a piece of notebook paper and shifted her weight uncomfortably from one side to the other. I couldn’t help but notice how uncharacteristic her movements were. Nerves, I decided. When she spoke, I understood.
“For my project, I decided to make a list of all the things I am grateful for.” She paused, glancing up for courage. “And the thing that kept coming back to me was my sister.”
I sat in stunned silence. For weeks I had watched these girls pretend to be strangers, sit as far from each other as possible, and emphasize any and all differences between them.
“I just realized,” Aspen began again through tears, “I had never told her thank you.”
For a few moments she stood, unable to speak. And then it happened: A moment so simple, so ordinary, and yet so out of place in the large and lifeless lecture hall. Jayse stood up and hugged her sister. The two hugged and cried together. Apologies were exchanged, love was shared and they were both forever changed.
Click. I took my mental “after” picture.
I have been blessed to witness many such moments as an instructor for the School of Life Foundation; acts of courage and vulnerability, extraordinary gifts, new friendships and lives changed. I used to wonder what it was about this program that created these moments. Certainly the caliber of students plays a major role, but I have also realized that it is our message. The School of Life goes way beyond a classroom full of high school students working off restitution hours. The A’s are true principles. They will always be true. Every time they are applied, one can’t help but be changed by them. Even teenagers. And even, maybe especially, sisters.
Written by Stacy Brady for St. George Health and Wellness magazine and St. George News.
Brady is part of the School of Life Foundation, which honors teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members promoting excellence in education.
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