A Letter to My Student: Dear J (4th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear J,

When I had you in my class, I was young. I was new at this teaching thing and I stumbled through it poorly. You were young. You were new at this being a human thing and you stumbled through it without much help from me. Being on this side of things, I see how I dropped the ball with you.

I am sorry. It was easy for me to feel empathy with students who were visibly falling apart in front of me. You hid it and I didn’t press in. I gave them more grace than I gave you because I assumed you were just trying to push buttons or cause problems.

Now I know better. Partly because I know you better. You needed me more than I realized. You even called me out on that when you were in 4th grade. That is hard to do. It took courage. I was very proud of you. I wish I had been a better man and role model for you.

I am very grateful you reached out to me later and shared with me that your mom was dying. Here we are, months later, and you are entering your first Christmas without your mom. I have not checked in with you like I should have, and I am sorry.

Here’s what I know: this is going to be hard. You are going to want to be tough and prove that you are man enough to make it through. You’re not. None of us are. People are not made to ‘get over it.’ We are made to love people and unfortunately we lose those people and it hurts like hell. We are made to grieve. To get angry, and cry, and yell, and curl up in a ball. Sometimes to feel nothing, or laugh, or move on, or remember.

My prayer for you is that you find hope in the midst of your grief, that you feel man enough to cry when you need to, and that you become the kind of man your mom wanted you to be. And when you fail, as you will because you’re human, I pray that you will reach out to me, or someone like me… someone who cares about you. Tell us what is hard. And then let us walk with you as you figure out this mess we call life.


Your former teacher, Mr. Johnson