It was 8:35 a.m., and Charlie’s head was already down on his desk. His long black hair covered his face, and his big brown eyes were closed. Over the last few weeks, his energetic bounce had disappeared, and his eyes had lost their spark.

Charlie had been in my classroom for several months, and this behavior was out of the ordinary. He was still meeting expectations as a student, but he was more than a student. His heart mattered to me more than his academics. I was determined to help him find his spark again. 

I’d been checking in on Charlie, making time for intentional conversations, hoping this would shed some light on his recent behavioral change. I was ready to listen. But the conversations yielded nothing, only a shy smile and a head nod that he was fine. 

Fine was not good enough.

So, I stopped talking and started watching. Sometimes, we must listen to actions, not just words. After several days, I found the common thread: his hearing aids. Sometimes shoved into a pocket of his bookbag, sometimes hidden in his desk, sometimes left at home, Charlie had stopped wearing his hearing aids. When I asked him about it, he simply told me he just didn’t want to wear them. No pain. No technical problems. Just, “I don’t like them.” So, here he sat, head down, hair covering his ears, disliking a part of himself, hoping no one would notice.

I noticed. And he mattered to me.

In my hands, I held a book—a book I hoped would build a bridge for Charlie from his heart through the academic content and into the safe space of our classroom. A bridge that would help turn “I don’t like them,” into “I’m proud of who I am.”

The book was titled Emmanuel’s Dream:The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls. I opened the crisp colorful pages and began to read: 

“Two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry, 

Two tiny fists opened and closed, 

But only one strong leg kicked.”

Charlie’s eyes opened. The first brick on the bridge was laid. 

“Most people thought he would be useless, or worsea curse.”

“That’s not right!” another student shouted from across the room, adding that the way you are born doesn’t contribute to your worth.

Charlie’s head turned. Another brick on the bridge was laid. This time by a friend. 

As we continued to read, we discovered that Emmanuel learned to ride a bike despite being born with only one leg.

“Being disabled does not mean being unable.” 

Charlie pushed his hair from his face. Brick. 

As Emmauel rode through the pages of the book, Charlie’s head rose off his desk. And brick by brick, the bridge between a child’s heart and a classroom space to unpack it was being built. 

“In this world, we are not perfect. We can only do our best.”

Charlie smiled. 

I closed the book and said, “In the story, Emmanuel was born with only one strong leg. That is something we can see from the outside, but not all differences are things that others can see. Let’s take a second and think of some other examples and how we, as humans, can respect, support, and accept all of our friends for who they are.”

Students from around the room piped up. 

“Sometimes I have a hard time focusing!”

“Me too!”

“I have a friend with autism.”

“Speaking different languages isn’t something you can see from the outside!”

The bridge was complete. And now, Charlie took the first steps across the bridge. “Some people have hearing impairments. Like me. And they wear hearing aids. Like mine,” he shared confidently. 

Eyes turned toward him. Heads nodded. Now, they were listening too. The bridge was widening and others were walking with Charlie. 

I circled back to my original question. “What can we all do to respect, support, and accept all of our friends for who they are?”

“We can ask each other the best ways to support each other,” a student said. 

“Yeah, because we know ourselves best!” chimed another. 

I stepped back as the conversation unfolded. 

“We all have things that make us different, but we have things in common too!”

“And we cannot make assumptions about what we think will be best for someone else.” 

“We can remember that disabilities are not inabilities, like it said in the book.” It was Charlie’s voice that carried above the rest. 

The class quieted and a friend turned to him and asked, “You mentioned your hearing aids. Tell us about that.” And in that moment, a new bridge was formeda bridge from one heart to another. 

Eventually, our conversation closed and we moved on to reading independently. I felt a small tap on my shoulder and turned to find Charlie standing before me, eyes sparkling. “Can I read it again, Miss Cameron? The book about Emmanuel. I want to read it again.”

For the rest of the day, Charlie held the book Emmanuel’s Dream in his arms, and at the end of the day, I found a sticky note inside that read,  “I can do anything I put my mind to because I matter.”

Today, the book Emmanuel’s Dream has a permanent, outward facing place on our bookshelf. Charlie, the proud owner of his own copy of Emmanuel’s Dream, wears his hearing aids every day, and he is quick to remind people that who they are is enough. I often find Charlie glancing over at the book, and I am reminded of the power of listening, the power of a book, and the power of a classroom community.

When I reflect upon my own time as a student, I am reminded of the professors at Furman University who listened to meand in this way, I was forever changed. It was when Dr. Henderson put down his briefcase to stay a little longer and listen to my story from the classroom. Or when Dr. Kelly patiently listened to my reflection about a summer tutoring student, inspiring me to be creative. 

Because they listened, I grew. 

Because they listened, I am better. 

Because they listened, I understand the power of listening. 

Because I had a teacher who listened, I became a teacher who listens. 

 As educators, we are surrounded by voices: policymakers, legislators, parents, colleagues, administrators, studentsbut whose voices do we choose to tune in to? 

We must know our content and our standards. But even more, we must prioritize the humans that sit in our classrooms and the relationships we have with them first, while we simultaneously build our teacher toolboxes.

When we create a culture of listening in our classroom, we ultimately build a generation of listeners. Because we listened, we hope they too will listen. And when they listen, they will build those bridges. Listening is an intentional choice that shows what we value. Who we value. May we have the courage to choose wisely.

This story is published as part of a storytelling retreat hosted by the CarolinaCrED housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. CarolinaCrED partners nominated practicing educators, administrators, and system leaders to share their stories. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a CarolinaCrED partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @Carolina_CrED and @teachingquality.