I checked my email this evening as I was waiting for the meatloaf to finish cooking. It was just supposed to be a cursory “anything going on that I should know about” check, as it was my work email, not the fun one. There among the advertisements for faster wi-fi and reminders from the school secretary was a note from a former student. I hesitated for a moment before I opened it. This was a young lady who left Newark Catholic to go to her nearby public school, where she is a junior, because of the atmosphere at NC. (We have quite a problem with mean girls.) And this girl, despite the diamond-hard shell she’d built around herself, was succumbing to their nastiness.
I’d had this girl as a child at St. Francis, when I was the computer apps teacher there. I remembered her as sassy, gutsy, straightforward, funny and very compassionate. By the time she got to high school, the sassy and straightforward had turned to vitriolic and insulting. She never missed an opportunity to shock or hurt. She ended up in my media class, where she tried daily to keep me at arm’s length by attacking first. I did my best to ignore her taunts and just keep teaching. But then something unexpected happened: she turned in her first writing assignment, and blew my socks off. Her writing was deep, compassionate, full of soul and very, very intelligent. It took my breath away. I wrote on her paper: “This is phenomenal. PLEASE keep writing!” All through the semester, she behaved predictably in class, while turning in some of the most mature writing I’d ever seen. I tried to encourage her and showed her kindness in response to her jabs – and when I did, it was usually met with a hard-to-read silent stare. I’d say hi to her in the hallways. Again, the silent stare.
Meantime, things outside of the classroom deteriorated for her. She had a few meltdowns, and her parents wisely decided to change her surroundings while getting treatment for her. I thought about her on and off, because despite everything I really liked this kid. And here was an email from her. A year after I’d last seen her. I double-clicked.
She just wanted to say hi, and that she was much better than I’d seen her last and how was I doing?
I was thrilled. We traded emails at lightning speed for a half hour or so. I asked her if she was still writing. And she said something that brought my job into laser focus. She said: “I stopped for a while, because what I saw when I looked back at it was brutal, but it was because I was hurting, like you said. I picked it back up a few months ago, and the only reason I did was because I found a paper I kept from your class that said ‘bri, this is phenomenal.. PLEASE keep writing’ so I kept writing.”
And that is why I will go back in that classroom tomorrow with renewed commitment to teach like my hair is on fire, and to keep showing each kid how much I value them personally, regardless of how hard they try to keep me from it.