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Back when we were still dating but contemplating marriage, one of the topics my husband and I discussed was the discipline of our potential future children. We agreed hitting children is wrong. My husband further articulated that the only stern physical contact he wanted his kids to receive was what he called a “firm upper-arm grip.”

The Firm Upper-Arm Grip™ is not a punishment, but a physical redirection, away from foolishness and back to safety. Sometimes it is a way to refocus a distracted kiddo on an important matter at hand.

Since that thoughtful but naïve conversation about our imagined future, we have welcomed five children and had plenty of opportunities to redirect them towards opportunities to do better.

Last week, I felt I received something like a Firm Upper-Arm Grip from a divine source.

Ironically, I was standing at the DMV, one of the least divine places I can think of.

I was there to help my almost-16-year-old son renew his learner’s permit for driving. He had misplaced his original permit, which we assumed had expired. We figured he’d need to re-take the written exam to get a new one.

That morning, I flipped through my files to get his documents in order. I handed him his passport, his Social Security card, two pieces of mail (one from his orthodontist and the other from the credit union where he deposits his lawn-mowing money) and told him to also have his school I.D. card handy, since it had a more current photo than his passport.

I felt my duty at the DMV that morning was to shepherd my teen through an exercise in necessary paperwork. I stood at the application counter with him, pointing to the lines on the form he needed to fill out and prompting his answers.

Next to us, a tiny, elderly woman was quietly working on her own form.

Suddenly she turned to me and said in broken English, “You see my paper?”

Then she asked me in fluent Spanish if I could please review her form and make sure she had filled it out correctly.

Now, there is nothing about my appearance that suggests I speak Spanish. Nothing that reveals it was one of my favorite classes in both high school and college, or that my favorite family vacations are to Mexico, no reason at all to initiate a conversation in Spanish with me. By appearance, I am just another white mom lady in Utah, so I was surprised this woman took such a chance.

But I did understand, and I immediately looked at her form and discussed the questions with my new friend Maria. With some clarification, we realized she needed to change some of her answers. She had none of the documents my son had. Even so, she was doing her best to figure out the system so she could renew her driving privilege card.

By the time we got in line to submit my son’s application, we were three people behind Maria. When it was her turn, I saw her present her forms and I.D. card. I also saw her expression fall when the DMV clerk asked her some questions, perhaps a little too curtly. She was confused.

I was there to help my child, but I felt something comparable to an invisible Firm Upper-Arm Grip compelling me to step out of line and stand next to Maria, so I did. In retrospect, it was like a divine whisper saying, “Maria needs some help, and you’re all we’ve got, so step up.”

I repeated the clerk’s questions to Maria in Spanish. The clerk’s demeanor softened. Maria was able to both answer and ask questions, and move along to the next step without further frustration.

When she was called up to the second desk, my son’s turn was also close. Should I follow Maria to see if she needed help, or should I stay with my young son?

I glanced at my big, tall, English-speaking teen with his stack of official documents in his hand and realized he’d be fine. Once again, I stood next to Maria.

We all exited the DMV together, as good friends. My son was pleased he had his permit, freshly printed out for him with no fee since he learned it was not yet expired after all. He felt big about handling his business with minimal help from his mom.

Maria thanked me for being there, and said she had been worried about how she would manage this challenging errand. I was in the right place when she needed some friendly help, she said.

“My angel,” she said.

Stupid as it may be, I wept all the way home.

I speak exactly enough Spanish to be friendly and talk about how badly I speak Spanish. And, apparently, translate DMV forms under pressure.

My son and I gained a new appreciation for what we previously considered mundane paperwork. The papers in his lap were evidence of the lucky lives we lead, and we felt grateful.

Sometimes the tendency in stories like this is to describe the recipient of help as overly humble, simple or otherwise weak. But that’s not the case here. If I had to figure out how to get driving privileges in a new country in a new language, I would curl up into fetal position until Christmas.

Yet, that’s probably the fifteenth brave thing Maria has done since 9 a.m. Maria is a royal queen, a beloved daughter of God, with a level of gutsiness I can only hope to develop.

Keep your action movie heroes; I want Maria on my team.

I am the humble, simple one who needs a big nudge from Heaven.

Contact Sally at

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