teacher

A Letter to My Student: Dear F (5th 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 F,

Perhaps my hardest day as a teacher was one I shared with you. Not because you did something wrong, but because you finally let me in on what has been happening in your heart and mind.

Up until that day, I knew that there was a lot brewing under the surface. You would shut down on a regular basis and avoid talking to me. Your homeroom teacher couldn’t connect with you. You would write “I wish I was dead” in your notebook, but would never elaborate in person. Honestly, I was at a loss. I only knew that I couldn’t give up… you needed someone to press in and really show up.

Then one day during lunch, you and another student were talking about times when you thought your house was broken into. You started to tell a story and then burst in to tears. For the next 30 minutes you cried and shared a whole series of stories with me that you had never told anyone.

You told me how your dad used to hit you, but had stopped since he got remarried. You told me how you were afraid he was going to get divorced from her and start hitting you again. You told me about a ghost that lived in your dad’s house who was the only person you could talk to. You told me that the reason you didn’t want to live with your mom was because the ghost couldn’t follow you to her house. You told me how you didn’t want to die, but it felt so hard to keep living.

I wasn’t prepared for any of that, but I had also been waiting for it this whole time. I sat and cried with you. There is no good response to that information so I just shared your sorrow. My heart was broken in so many ways for this burden you were had been carrying entirely alone. I wanted to fix everything, but there’s no way I could do that.

And a few weeks after this conversation, I was done with my position there and have seen you only once or twice since then. So here is what I hope you are learning:

You deserve to be loved by someone who is safe and good. You deserve to have a man in your life who doesn’t make you afraid you’ll be hurt. You deserve to have a friend or teacher you can trust. If you bottle your fears and hurt inside, it will literally kill you. It might be physically, emotionally, or spiritually, but keeping it to yourself will slowly and surely destroy the best parts of you.

I beg you to keep living. As a person and an artist, you have so much to offer the world. As someone who has survived an abusive home, you have hope to give to others. Please don’t stop fighting no matter how hard it is.

That conversation shook me to my core, but I will treasure it forever. You trusted me first and that is no small thing.

I pray that you feel the strength of a living hope. I pray that you fight. I pray that you continue to trust.

Love,

Your resource teacher, Mr. Johnson

A Letter to My Student: Dear A (10th 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 A,

I taught you for exactly one class period. I have seen you in the halls a few times since then, but have not had the opportunity to say hi. Though out interaction was brief, it is one of my most memorable in recent years. The following is, to the best of my recollection, how we met.

I was standing in the hallway greeting you and your class as you came in. I was probably talking a lot and too fast. Or making fun of someone.

You asked, “Do you have ADHD?”

“I think so, but I’m not diagnosed.”

“I am. I take meds for it.”

“I don’t.”

“High five.”

We high-fived. The kid in front of you muttered, “That is the weirdest thing to high five over.”

As the class went on, you were finished with all of your work and we got to talking. You were incredibly articulate and knowledgeable. Along with your diagnosis, you clearly received the tools to understand and explain how you and your brain functioned. I felt like I learned a lot from you through our casual conversation.

Since you had no work to do, were very open about your ADHD, and understood it well, I asked you to read a story I had written. It was a story about a boy with ADHD. After you finished reading, your tone went from jovial to serious. Not only did you enjoy it, but you were insistent that this story needs to be told.

So I want to say thank you. Thank you for reminding me why I started that story. It’s for kids like you who have not yet been given the words to understand themselves. Thank you for reminding me that every kid is unique and capable regardless of of how their brain works. I tend to lump kids with ADHD into one category of behavior. You helped me to break down those expectations.

I also want to encourage you. You have a gift. You are charismatic, hard-working, and articulate. You have the ability to do great things. Whether it is having more conversations like the ones we had or taking on new passions, you can impact and influence people. Don’t take that lightly. Not everyone has that gift and not everyone who does stewards it well. Make a difference in the world. And don’t let yourself be held back because your brain works differently than others. That is your uniqueness. That is your brilliance.

Love,

Your ADHD sub that one time, Mr. Johnson

A Letter to My Student: Dear S (2nd 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 S,

It has been over a year and a half since I met you and said goodbye to you. Our 6 or so weeks together were not easy, but they were good.

When I came into your class, I knew you would be hard to pin down. You had a lot of anxiety about reading, a lot of crap going on at home, and a hard time expressing yourself. And you didn’t know me from Adam. We pushed through and forged a trust.

You were important to me. My hard kids are always important to me, but you even more so. Your young aunt was taking care of you because your parents couldn’t. The time I put in to help you feel safe and successful is not time I put for every student. It was a gift I joyfully gave to you, whether it felt like a gift or not.

I spent most of the school day, especially reading, watching the door across the room in case you tried to run out. I spent a good chunk of reading lessons teaching in front of the door, watching you tip over your desk and chairs to see if I would come stop you… so you could run out. I’m sure it did not feel like it at the time, but these were my ways of loving you.

Your life was out of control, so I gave you as much control as I could. You had your own nook in the classroom. You got learning options other kids didn’t have and time with friends in class that others didn’t get. You needed to feel safe in my classroom, and I hope these things helped to that end.

But because your life was out of control, I needed to give you boundaries. You couldn’t do whatever you wanted. If I gave you two choices, you couldn’t pick a third. You needed structure and accountability. I know you were angry with me when I would hold the door shut so you couldn’t leave, but you needed someone to give you a firm, “No.” Those days were hard. It did not make me happy to set and hold those boundaries, but you needed them.

On our last day together, our whole class got to say goodbye. It absolutely broke my heart to watch you and C hug each other and cry. I had never seen you sad before. Angry, happy, tired, but never sad. The two of you cried for nearly 10 minutes. Not dramatic tears but good, honest, hurting tears.

My prayer for you is that you find more friends who you love and who love you like C. My hope is that you find a teacher and parent in your life who loves you enough to ‘teach from the door.’ And when they give you boundaries, I pray that you can trust that they love you and might have some wisdom to offer.

You got dealt a hard deck in life. Trust and love are going to be hard for you. But they are so worth it. The feeling of being safe is worth the risk of heartbreak. May God lead you to safe, loving people.

I miss you.

Love,

Your second grade teacher, Mr. Johnson

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.

Love,

Your former teacher, Mr. Johnson