A doughnut, a smile and a breakthrough

Sheryl Green
Sheryl Green

I wish I could hang out with Marie Epting over at Reese Road Leadership Academy. I think spending time with this fifth-grade teacher would make me a better teacher and a better human being.

I heard she has something special. So, I think I might take a trip to Reese Road and watch her in action and see her work her magic. Because if what she did for a little kid named Justin is the same sort of “magic” she does for all her students, Mrs. Epting just might be the kind of teacher I want to be more like.

There are Justins in every school. He’s the kid who reads far below grade level, has little foundational knowledge and skills to build upon, and hides his lack of academic skill behind a facade of mischief, misbehavior, and misguidance. He acts up and acts out. He draws attention to his delinquency to avoid drawing attention to his missing skills. He’s the kid many teachers guess to be a future dropout.

But not a teacher like Mrs. Epting. All she needed was a doughnut and a smile to make a difference in Justin’s life.

A doughnut and a smile. Seems simple enough, but behind that sugary treat was a strategic battle plan to pluck a kid from the claws of a cruel world.

Justin was a fourth grader fulfilling the duties of an adult. School was not his priority; surviving was. Every afternoon he didn’t leave school and run to the neighborhood playground. He wasn’t picked up from school by Momma and carted off to soccer practice or Boy Scouts. Instead, he unloaded himself from the school bus and went home to duty and responsibility. He cooked for his younger siblings and washed and ironed their clothes for the next school day. The burn marks on his arms and hands revealed the level of his responsibilities at home. He was even the grocery-getter, often left at Winn Dixie’s checkout line with not enough money to pay for what he was sent to get.

With no daddy around and an illiterate momma, Justin had no resources to assist his academic growth. And Justin’s priority simply was not going to be his school work, not when there were no coats in the winter, little food on the table, and no money in the bank.

And so, the boy sometimes was a terror at school. He was such a terror in the hallway that Mrs. Epting took notice. One couldn’t help but notice Justin. He wasn’t even her student, but one day Mrs. Epting saw an opportunity to step in and make a difference, and she did. She used the only tool she had. She bribed him with a doughnut.

She made a deal with the boy: behave and get a doughnut. Simple but effective, because Justin behaved. And so began a sweet relationship.

The next year Justin was in Mrs. Epting’s math class, and she made a point to spark life into him, and he responded. His grades increased, his behavior improved, his reputation changed. He had set his mind to be successful, and all it took was a doughnut and a smile.

None of us have a clue about the struggles children face beyond the protective walls of public schools. But it just might be the simple things that can make a difference. Thanks, Mrs. Epting, for teaching us that lesson.