March 8th, 2011

My name is Orly Wahba. I am 28 years old and for the past seven years of my life I have had the amazing opportunity to be an educator for 7th and 8th grade children. Throughout these years I have grown in more ways than one and a big part of that is due to my students and the atmosphere I have worked ever so hard at creating in and out of the classroom setting.

Class time was never spent simply learning facts and figures, but rather building character, forging bonds, and developing the values and morals that truly determine the worth of an individual. Each class is filled with discussions about unity, love, respect for oneself, respect for others, tolerance, kindness, generosity, and cultivating a deep sense of self and purpose.

These discussions couldn’t simply be limited to feeble talk within the classroom. As time went on we found ways of taking these thoughts and propelling them into action. One project followed the other and before I knew it, these amazing children were growing into people who would have the strength of heart and determination of mind to make a positive impact on the world. You may ask yourself, “What is she talking about?” Well, if you give me the chance I think you will begin to see.

Amongst some of the greatest issues plaguing children of today’s time is bullying, peer pressure, depression, substance abuse, violence, and the increasingly growing suicide rate. What has gone wrong? Where have we as a society gone wrong? Yes, children have always dealt with issues of peer pressure and such, but never to a degree as great and rampant as it is now. So…WHY??

I am most certainly not the first person to suggest an answer or reason. SELF WORTH and SELF CONFIDENCE!!! These two things are a major factor leading to each of the above issues. Children and yes-even adults struggle with lack of confidence and self worth. For some reason the word “CAN’T” has become a common word within people’s vocabulary.

People fail to see their own potential and just how powerful they truly are. Each person has the ability to move mountains, but somewhere along the way of life we have gotten discouraged, or have fallen, or failed. And within those moments we’ve lost the most important thing we own – BELIEF in ourselves. Being that I for one was a child who had exceptionally low confidence it was always rather easy for me as an educator to spot a child who had similar anxieties. Children and teenagers are discovering who they are and so it is natural and normal to go through a period of self-doubt. However, if not dealt with properly and by not teaching them how to gain confidence, true confidence, it can have devastating results as the child matures.

A child with a lack of confidence will often feel as though they are not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, and so on. These feelings don’t simply disappear. Soon enough those feeling will turn into feelings of worthlessness. The child will feel as though they are the odd one out, as if they have no place in the world. A child with these thoughts is more likely to become a target of bullying and will be less likely to defend themselves in those situations. A child being bullied, with the inability to seize control of their life, will very likely fall into depression, feeling as though no one truly would miss them if they weren’t around. They begin to feel like they are in a downward cycle with no one there to help pull them out. Soon enough, if nothing is done, a child dealing with depression is more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other forms of substance abuse to try and escape their reality. Some may even turn to violence by joining gangs and consorting with people who will only lead them further down the path of worthlessness. Over time they feel lost, they are lost, and finding one’s way back is never easy.

So, what do we do? The answer is clear! We must build the feeling of self worth within these children. I believe with all my heart that each individual possesses a tremendous amount of potential. Each person is another piece of the ever-growing puzzle of life. Each piece is the same size as the next, but what makes the pieces unique is their specific shape and colors. Each piece, regardless of how small, or seemingly insignificant is crucial in the completion of the puzzle. Why have we forgotten that we are a powerful entity? We must remind ourselves just how special, unique, and significant we all are, no one being more or less important than the other. Life isn’t about racing to get to first place, but rather about the amounts of people we help cross the finish line with us.

Getting back to my experience teaching over these seven years. One of the main reasons I became a teacher was because I had personally gone through a difficult experience during my childhood. An experience which devastated me. Unfortunately, it was during that time in my life where I felt completely alone. I felt that no one noticed me or what I was struggling with. As I time went on I fell into a depression until the point that I felt like an insignificant spec; like nothing mattered, as though I was worthless. I promised myself all those years ago that I would be there for others the way I wished someone would have been there for me. I trained myself to see people not for what they outwardly showed me, but for what was really going on within them, within their heart, the things they may keep hidden, but secretly wanted someone to discover.

 

When I became a teacher I used this “sixth sense” to reach out to students in a way I had wished someone had reached out to me. Yes, it took a lot of patience; a lot of effort, but what I found was that each child has a storehouse of beauty and potential. I didn’t see the child for who they were at that moment, but rather for who they had the potential to be. Truthfully, I believe that people pick up on that. The way we see people, will eventually become the way they see themselves. I can recall countless times students looked at me tears in their eyes asking me: “Why do you see so much good in me? I’m a nobody” When they saw I would refuse to believe that and regardless of how many times they may have failed, I continued to see them and look at them with the same eyes – eventually they began believing in themselves.

But, feeding a person confidence isn’t enough. Something more must be done. You must show a person just how powerful they are, just how much of an effect and impact they have on society. And so kindness, love and belief became the motto of each class. Believing in yourself, loving yourself for who you are, loving others even with their flaws, and giving of yourself kindly to others. By giving kindly to others ones self esteem and feeling of self worth automatically increases.

I began doing various exercises with my students. A few of these exercises stand out in my mind above the rest and I would like to share them.

I stressed very often that change, lasting change, happens slowly, over time and with  progression. In today’s society such things are unheard of. If a computer takes a few extra seconds to load, we already begin thinking about getting rid of that computer. If an hourglass pops up while we’re waiting for a page to load we suddenly become frustrated. Our society has made us become people who believe in instant gratification, but any person who was truly successful in their life will tell you that true success does not happen over night. It comes only with time, effort and countless failures. Failure, after all, is the key to great success. Unfortunately our surroundings have instilled within us the wrong type of worth ethic and life ethic. Life is about committing to something and making small yet significant changes towards making it a reality. If a baby attempts to leap before he walks, the child will most likely fall flat on his face. Life is about process and we need to remind ourselves of this very important concept.

In order to educate the children in regards to this concept, I created a puzzle. The children had no idea what the picture on the puzzle made up. Every couple of weeks, the children would have to choose something small in which they wanted to try and improve upon: from aspects of their character, to their relationship with family, friends, teachers, siblings, or with themselves. They simply had to choose something small enough to accomplish and stick to it.

 

At the end of the two week period, each child reevaluated their task and asked themselves whether they were successful or not. We would discuss this is in a classroom stetting and they would bring examples to demonstrate whether they succeeded or failed. The objective was to sure them that even if they failed – they were truly a success, because they were trying to take the first step. Acknowledgement of your failures is just as much a success. Once they were able to accomplish their task they would receive a puzzle piece on which they would inscribe their name or signature. One piece turned into two, two turned into five, and so on and so forth. On the final week of school, all the pieces were distributed and we were finally ready to assemble the puzzle. WOW! What a sense of accomplishment, what a rush we all felt as we began digging into the bag with the puzzle pieces that bore our names, our actions, our goals that we have accomplished. Little by little we put the puzzle together, with the aid of each student.

When I had first announced the project, I asked the children whether they would hang a thousand-piece puzzle on their wall if one piece were missing. I asked them to imagine it being the very middle piece. The students all agreed they wouldn’t because the puzzle would not be completed and it wouldn’t look right. I explained to them – that each of them is another piece of an ever-growing puzzle and so if that is the case, each person is significant, because without them the puzzle is incomplete.

As we began placing the final pieces of the puzzle together, something very strange occurred: one piece was missing. Which piece? None other than the middle piece, which brought the entire picture together. I was disappointed and felt bad to show the children that one piece was missing, but then I realized that the missing puzzle piece is truly the message behind the project. That missing piece represents the small piece that we can all do to complete our own puzzle, there is always another step to grow, but it’s about taking it one piece at a time. Once the puzzle was completed, with its symbolic middle piece missing, I framed it. But the front picture no longer mattered – rather the back of the puzzle, the collage of all the names of the students was a masterpiece of its own. That was the true work of art because it represented the significance of each name and each person. That was a day I’ll never forget!

So where is this going? As I mentioned giving of oneself kindly to others automatically increases ones feeling of self worth. By helping others, you begin to feel your potential as an individual. A person, who recognizes their potential, will be filled with a confidence, self esteem and self worth that is unimaginable. A child with a strong sense of self, is less likely to be bullied, less likely to fall to depression, less likely to be seized by the fake intrigues of substance abuse and more likely to become a powerful catalyst in making this world all the more better.

Kindness has always been a theme in my class. I have had grades gelling together in the most extraordinary ways and watching it was like magic. Children respecting each other, encouraging one another, helping each other, and listening to one another – wow! Amazing!

I began a project with my students four years ago, which has lent itself to become my future. I began creating Random acts of kindness cards; each card listing a different act. On the front of the card it stated: “Random act of Kindness” – it would state the act and beneath it, it read: “Please perform the act, pass the card to someone else, lets keep the kindness going”. On the back I placed a quote about kindness. At first these acts were limited to about ten. I had been on a seminar in which I saw these cards laid out on the table. It was an inspirational gimmick to encourage the children to pass kindness along. However, when I saw the card I saw the great potential it had. What if I create more acts and actually distribute these not as a gimmick but for people to truly pass along. Showing people that they indeed have an effect on the world around them: a real life pay it forward, if you will.

And so I went to work. I created about 30 acts and began printing them up and laminating them. It was June and the 8th graders were having their final assembly as elementary students before heading out into a whole new chapter of their lives. It couldn’t be a more perfect setting. And so I created one card per child and spoke to the grade as a whole about the importance of remembering their great potential, especially as they move on to high school, an atmosphere that is known to cripple feelings of self worth. Remember your potential I told them. I handed each child a card and told them to continue to pass them forward and every individual who receives that card and is effected by it will be to their merit because they were brave enough to take the first step.

After distributing the cards I realized I accidentally printed 8 extra cards, or so I thought. As I pulled into my driveway that very hot June day, I noticed a group of men and women working outside of my house, cleaning the streets (I assumed they were doing some kind of community service hours). I recognized the opportunity to spread kindness and give kindly. I ran into my house, got a pitcher of water, a couple bottles of soda some ice and cups. I walked over to them and asked them if they would like a drink. They looked at me as if to say, “What’s the catch?” But there was no catch; simply a kindness from one stranger to another. They were taken aback and appreciative. We began conversing for about ten minutes or so. They asked me if I wanted something in return and I explained that I’m just passing it on. As I excused myself and walked back into my house, I had the biggest smile on my face and the warmest feeling in my heart. As I started taking my books out of my bag, I came across the envelope with the extra cards. Suddenly it came to me. I quickly counted the cards left in the envelope – EIGHT! I ran to the window and began counting the people outside. “Five, six, seven – EIGHT! Of course! How could it be otherwise? I anxiously took the cards in my hand and ran back outside. I walked up to them and told them that there actually was something they could do for me. I began explaining to them that I have been speaking to my students about the importance of kindness and I described the project I was working on with them. I then took out the cards and asked them if they would be willing to accept a card. I would never know if they would or would not complete it, but that didn’t matter. They all agreed and I began passing them out, each card carrying on it a different message. Suddenly one of the men stopped in his tracks. He grasped the card tightly and began yelling, “How did you know to give me this card? How did you know to give me this card?” he began to yell over and over as a tear streamed down his face. I realized the card must have hit a nerve. The others froze, eyes fixated on him as he explained that he had been thinking about calling his parents for the past few weeks; it was ten years since he spoke to them last. As I looked down at his card I saw the reason for his tears, “Call your parents to tell them how much you love them.” One thing is for sure – I will never forget that gentleman and his story is forever embedded in my mind. The power of kindness – indescribable!

My mission is simple:

About a year or so down the road, towards the end of the year I began having a discussion with my 8th grade students about their dreams. I showed them a music video by Nickleback, If Today Were Your Last Day. All I can say about that video is – breathtaking! The words, thoughts, ideas all represent a big part of what I believe in. The video ended with a quote by Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Many people will tell you the importance of having dreams for yourself, but more importantly than the dream, is the courage to pursue it in spite of the struggles and obstacles that most certainly arise. I explained to the children the importance of dreaming, remembering their dreams as they mature, and never allowing anyone discourage them with such words as “can’t” “impossible” and such. I asked each student to go home and write down their dream for the future. I compiled their dreams along with many other thoughts and words they had written over the two years I was privileged to have them as students in a class journal. As we grow older in this world, something happens to the innocence of dreaming. We become so afraid of failure, rejection, that we stop dreaming, stop believing, stop striving for what we once longed for. I too wrote a dream. I began thinking about the Acts of Kindness cards I distributed to my students in school and suddenly the idea hit me. Imagine if I created thousands of cards and I along with a group of people would set out to the city handing out cards on every corner. It was not long after that I found myself cutting, laminating, and cutting once again 8,000 cards with the help of a few dedicated people all in a three day time period. I made a pamphlet describing my mission to infuse the world with love and affixed a card to each pamphlet and distributed them within my community.

It was not long after that the next great idea came to mind. What will motivate the person receiving the card to truly pass it forward? Suddenly it came to me: tracking numbers. What if each card was to have its own tracking number. When a person logs onto the website they simply enter their tracking number and on screen will appear the name or user ID of each person that had the card prior to them as well as a story that a previous card carrier may have submitted about the experience they had receiving the card or passing it forward. Once the user passes it on, they will receive an email each time their card is being tracked, giving them the opportunity to see where their card has traveled. Across state? Across country? To a relative, a loved one, a stranger? Who knows! But the possibilities are endless. Suddenly, people can see first hand the impact their kindness has on others down the road. What an amazing way to see just how powerful we truly are.

And so I began my quest – creating Life Vest Inside from the bottom up.

While there is much to do and the work has only just begun, I feel privileged to be part of Life Vest Inside on a daily basis. And so I’ve taken a leave of absence from teaching, more like a leap of faith – to pursue something that I believe in wholeheartedly. Scary? Yes – but I won’t give up on my dream!

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