My second-grade Sunday school teacher, Dawn, had really good posture. But not in a confident way; hers was that “I am a perpetually uncomfortable person” kind of posture. She had short grey hair and a gentle walk. At the time, I thought she was old. Given my ability to perceive age as an eight-year-old, this means she was probably somewhere between 30 and 100 years old. But she had a grandmotherly air to her. I remember that.
She was the kind of person who would have been a really terrible grandmother to your average rambunctious youth, who would have taken advantage of her generous soul. But she would have been an incredible grandmother to the quiet kid who asked how her skin got so wrinkly and what life was like before CD players.
I was the latter, at least in the context of Sunday school, which I always found inexplicably intimidating. I felt a connection to Dawn—if nothing else, we were the two quietest people in the room. I spent most of my time in class observing her as she shifted her weight nervously with the occasional “If the children would please quiet down, please, thank you.” The other kids shouted over her timid lectures, threw crayons at each other, and interrupted class with fart noises.
This chaos remained consistent throughout the year. The only time I recall it ebbing was the day that Dawn, perhaps hoping a display of emotional vulnerability might attract some sympathy from her tormentors, decided to tell us a story. A personal one.
This was an interesting plot twist in the saga of Sundays. Without friends to entertain me and with no personal information about Dawn, I had invented my own version of Dawn’s life. Inspired by the story in the Bible about the strangers who come down to visit and turn out to be messengers from God, I had decided that Dawn, too, was such a messenger. Obviously, I imagined, she would tell God to be annoyed at all the kids who were rude to her. When they got to heaven they’d all get in trouble.
Not so much. The story Dawn told us was far less remarkable than my grandiose vision.
She told us about a part of her life when she had been really sad for a long time. And how one day, in the midst of this sadness, she opened her apartment door and found a single candle that someone had left for her. The candle smelled really nice, but the realization that someone had noticed her sadness and wanted to help her was nicer. She thought it was a neighbor who did it, but she never knew for certain.
I don’t remember why she told us this story. It was relevant to something, I’m sure. But the important part was that nobody interrupted Dawn’s story. No shouting, no crayon tossing, no fart noises. The room was silent. It felt cinematic, the way everything suddenly froze so this soft-spoken grandma could tell her awkward tale of light in the darkness to a room of uncharacteristically silent eight-year-olds. What resonated with me then—and what still resonates with me, years later—wasn’t the beauty of the moment, though this certainly set the mood. It wasn’t even the moral, but how the story itself began: “During a really dark time in my life, when I was really sad for a while.”
I didn’t know you were allowed to say that. I didn’t know you were allowed to feel that way. I knew you could be mad when your friend sat on your American Girl Doll’s bicycle and broke the seat off. I knew you could be sad when your brother wouldn’t let you play with his friends. What I didn’t know was that you could feel bad without a “because.” I didn’t know you could feel that way for a while, for no reason at all.
This possibility was completely new, and at the time I mostly thought, “Huh. How bout that?” But in later years, as I began to deal with more complex emotions, Dawn’s story became a source of comfort. Other people feel this way too, I whispered to myself on nights when I cried for no reason, long before discussions of mental health were the norm. It’s okay to feel bad just ‘cause.
I’ve always wished I were a morning person. I’m jealous of people who eat breakfast and start their days before noon. But I don’t mind missing daybreak. I don’t know the beauty of the rising sun, so it’s never eclipsed the association with “Dawn” I’ve stored away in my brain. I like it that way.