(reprint in LIVE magazine, Springfield, MO, Feb. 2004; first published as “Bus Kid” in “Joyful Woman” magazine, Murfreesboro, TN in Jan/Feb. issue 1991)
I squeezed into a child-sized desk in an elementary school in Charleston, South Carolina. The door opened and in rushed 26 wide-eyed second graders. I smiled at them, and they stared at me.
Many years had passed since I had first stood in front of a second-grade class. Now I had come to observe another teacher.
“Good morning,” she said confidently and cheerfully.
“Good morning,” they piped back.
A Life-Changing Decision
I remembered when I’d first heard about this beautiful young lady, 10 years earlier.
“She needs a home, Marsha,” our youth pastor pleaded, “a good home. She’s a good kid, but she’s left home. It’s only a matter of time until she gets into trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “We’re much too busy. Our ministry takes up all our time.”
“But anything you could give her would be better than what she has now,” the minister said, tears in his eyes. “My wife and I would take her ourselves, but with our three children, we don’t think we can squeeze her into our house.”
“But I’d have to leave her alone often. What could be worse than a teenager at home alone?” I questioned. “But we’ll pray about it.”
The next Sunday morning we staked out a corner pew where we could watch the bus kids when they came in. We recognized Donna immediately. She was cute and clean, and her blue eyes sparkled. Her smooth complexion was littered with freckles and her blond hair was styled attractively.
“She seems harmless enough,” I whispered to my husband. “But I’ve heard that 14-year-old foster kids, especially girls, can be difficult.”
“Well,” my husband muttered between his teeth, “she can’t be a moody, sassy, fickle, flirty, back-stabbing liar all at one time!”
“Let’s take her to lunch!” I said.
“Sure,” my husband agreed. “But remember, you’re the one who must decide what we do, because the burden of caring for her will fall on you.”
Lunch at a fast–food restaurant revealed how much staring, gobbling, and burping one teenager can do in an hour. We asked questions about school, home, and life in general. No matter what the question, she answered, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” without ever lifting her eyes from the food on the table.
My husband and I stared at each other. Could we take this hateful, damaged creature into our home and actually help her? Later I phoned our youth pastor. “You win,” I said. “We’ll take her.”
Donna’s mother gave permission for Donna to live with us, and suddenly we had a daughter. School would begin in less than a week, and she had nothing to wear. We raided every yard sale in the county.
The church ladies surprised us with a “baby” shower, complete with cake, cards, and the necessities for a teenager’s happiness. As we drove home from the shower with our car loaded with the generous gifts from our church family, we rode into the sunset anticipating a lifetime of family bliss and harmony.
Facing the Challenge
My husband and I had been married 12 years. We were accustomed to quiet solitude and isolated hobbies. I was acting principal of our church’s Christian school and adept at loving and disciplining children of all ages. But living with one of the creatures was something else! My training hadn’t included disciplining a teenage cyclone with an unbridled will. I ran to the Christian bookstore, searching for advice. The only book I found remotely close to my need was HOW TO BREAK AND TRAIN WILD MUSTANGS. I bought it and read it avidly. Meanwhile, Donna appeared to be writing her own book with her friends: HOW TO HOODWINK AND HORNSWOGGLE NAÏVE FOSTER PARENTS.
At church I found strange solace in singing “Master, the Tempest is Raging” and “Sound the Battle Cry!” I would slump into a pew, still hearing, “Bug off, lady!” or “True or False … I hate you!” My husband and I asked ourselves if we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.
On her first Christmas with us, I gave Donna a large and adorable teddy bear.
“You are really ridiculous,” she said. “I’m 15! This is baby stuff.”
But before long, the bear became a bedfellow who shared her broken heart and deepest longings. His face was shaped like a wrinkled prune, so she named him “Pruneface.” She found it much easier to talk to me when she buried her face deep inside his.
Donna, Pruneface, and I began to share intimate thoughts about bad times, lonely nights, fears of midnight thunderstorms, and much more. Love began to weave our hearts together with a devotion for one another that could have come only from God.
I began to read the Bible with Donna at bedtime. We talked each evening about the day’s activities. Late one winter evening, I asked her if she really understood what it meant to confess her sins and turn to Jesus for salvation. The youth pastor had told us she had made a decision earlier. Still, she seemed to understand so little about it. I felt I needed to make it plain. As we talked, she began to understand her need of God’s mercy and grace. We both wept, and I hugged her.
“Donna,” I said, “I love you very much, as if you were my own.”
For what seemed like an eternity, she said nothing. Then she poked her head out from behind Pruneface.
“I love you, Mom.” Her voice quivered. Then she said, “I can’t believe I said that,” and she plunged, with Pruneface, under the covers.
With tears of joy streaming down my face, I turned off the light and left. So this is the reward of motherhood! I thought to myself.
Watching God Work
During the next 3 years, this awkward chrysalis was miraculously transformed into a beautiful butterfly by God’s grace. Consistent prayer, love, and discipline molded a potential dropout into a sweet young lady. Donna’s grades came up and stayed up.
Eventually she found two part-time jobs. She also worked on a church bus route and still made the honor roll. On three separate occasions, Donna won first place in poetry recitation at the Christian school state convention. At high school graduation, she received an award for Christian character and honors for the highest math average.
Donna then left us, headed for a Christian college, marriage, and a teaching career. She prepared our hearts to care for 11 more foster children who needed a home.
Ten years had passed since I first met the teenage phenomenon who changed my life forever. Now I sat in Donna’s classroom and watched her teach.
Over in the corner I spied a surprisingly familiar face – a face that looked like a wrinkled prune. His head was tilted, and I’m sure I saw him wink. He must have been remembering the good times we three had shared.
Donna stood up. The children grew quiet, sensing the special moment. Their teacher lifted her eyes from the pages before her, looked at Pruneface, then turned toward me. Tears trickled down her face.
“Children, I want you to meet my mother. Mom, I want to thank you for everything.” Her voice broke; then she whispered, “And don’t forget, Mom, I love you.”
My beloved daughter picked up her book, cleared her voice, and became the confident, professional teacher again. “Now, boys and girls, turn to page 16 in your reading books.”