Saving “Sam”

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by Mary Jo Shannon

At least once in my lifetime, I have definitely felt the power of God working within me. I have no doubt of this, for with only my own human ability, this story could never be told. It happened about 20 years ago when our pastor and his wife became foster parents for a bi-racial first grader whom I’ll call “Sam” to protect his identity.

Sam was the oldest of five children removed from their mother’s custody due to neglect that resulted in severe burns of the two younger children. The burn victims were sent to the burn center at the University of Virginia Hospital; the other children were assigned to a foster parent in a distant part of Roanoke.

This arrangement distressed Sam, who could not bear to leave his school and the only close friend he had – our pastor’s son. Consequently, Tupper and his wife, Virginia, volunteered to become Sam’s foster parents. They took him in to be a fourth child in their family and everyone adjusted well to the change.

There was, however one major problem – how to help Sam with his homework, for Sam was in the “non-reading group” in his first grade class. One day, a week or so into the new situation, Tupper asked me (knowing I was a retired teacher) how he could possibly help Sam with spelling when he didn’t even know the alphabet. Immediately my mouth opened and my reply truly shocked me.  “Let me work with him every day after school and I’ll help him learn.”

My offer was accepted, and I went home in a daze. Why did I make such a commitment? With my busy schedule, how many times would I fail to keep it? What if Sam balked at the thought of more study after school and refused to cooperate? What if he was incapable of learning?

I planned to use the method and materials of the Shedd program, which I had used successfully for many years. I knew this was the best method but I realized that some children with severe perceptual problem require intensive work for many months to achieve their potential. Would Sam be one of these? Would I fail to keep my promise to help him learn? Furthermore, I had not discussed this with Harry, which I usually do before agreeing to such a change in our routine. Oh, why had I made such a hasty decision?

The following day I met the school bus and Sam came willingly with me to my home. I had set up a study station in my home office, and after a snack and some “get-to-know-you” conversation we settled down to work. Two worries erased – Sam was most cooperative, and Harry understood and supported my decision. The time flew by and at 5:00 I drove my little learner back to his new home in time for supper.

Amazingly, this routine was repeated daily without conflict throughout the fall. I was convinced by his rapid progress that Sam’s difficulties were due to cultural deprivation rather than perceptual problems or intellectual deficiency. He was eager to learn and rejoiced in each accomplishment. Soon he knew not only the alphabet but the sound each letter produced. Spelling made sense and he delighted to write his own name in cursive.

When the Christmas break approached, Sam’s teacher spoke to his foster mom about his progress. She felt he was ready to leave the non-reading group and join a reading group. Would it be possible for his tutor to work with him over the holidays and help him complete the material her beginning readers had covered so far?

Both Sam and I agreed. I would change the schedule and we would work early in the morning so that he could have the rest of the day free. I gave him my telephone number. “Just call me after you are up and have had your breakfast,” I said, “and I’ll come to get you.”

The following morning my telephone rang at 7:00 am. “I’m ready!” Sam said enthusiastically. “But I’m afraid I’m not,” I replied. “I’ll come for you at 8:00 o’clock.”

And so we worked every day except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. We finished the reader and the workbook and Sam entered the reading group when school reconvened.

But we didn’t stop the lessons. We continued throughout the year until spring break. Again the teacher said he was ready to move up to a more advanced group. Could I continue tutoring through spring break and catch him up with the next group? We accepted the challenge, again without complaint from Sam. We accomplished our goal and Sam moved up again. I was amazed. This entire project seemed miraculous.

When summer came, not only had Sam’s reading and writing changed, but his personality had changed also. No longer did he seem submissive but was more confident and competitive. He also said he missed his brothers and their foster mother suggested he join them for the summer. This arrangement met his emotional needs and he asked if he might stay with them permanently. Eventually this lovely lady adopted all the boys. That fall Sam enrolled in a new school with a new name. Now he could make a new beginning with many new friends and the security of a happy home life.

I can’t help wondering – was the Lord preparing Sam for some special work? Maybe his purpose was just for him to be an inspiration to others. What Sam needed at each stage of his young life was provided.

It is an awesome and humbling experience to be aware of the living God at work within you.