My dad died last month. I grieved hard for two weeks, too distraught to teach most days. The first day I returned, I told my six classes what had happened. I broke down each time I said it.
After one of my writing classes, a student who had abruptly lost her beloved grandmother last year slipped me a note she had penned on lined paper. She wrote on both sides, but the part that really spoke to me was, “I know it’s hard, but it will get easier in time. It’ll seem like your father is on a trip far away and the phone service is bad.”
I pictured my dad wearing his countrified wide-brimmed hat, proudly telling angels how he was from Mississippi. I told myself, There are no cell phones in Heaven. My eyes watered, but only happy tears escaped. The burning pain in my heart was gone.
At the end of her hastily written letter, my student told me she loved me; that she understood what I am going through; that she would be here for me if I ever needed her. That’s when I realized how much I needed her to care. Her. The most volatile student in the middle school. The one who cursed me out when I declined her request to leave class to get something from her locker. The girl who is so hurt she often pretends not to care about anything except her cats. If no one in the entire school understood my pain, she did.
I have suffered so much loss in my nine years of teaching. This year it was my dad. One year it was the job I lost when the principal just stopped liking me. Another year I had a miscarriage—and the year before that, and the year before that. I have endured the sorrow of losing four unborn children, in fact. Fortunately, my students never knew I was pregnant. I told them I missed those days of school because I was sick.
After my third miscarriage—the one that nearly broke me—I didn’t know if I could ever teach again. The first day I came back to school, one sixth grade student had presented me with a “Get Well Soon” card that had an origami rose taped to the cover. It was the most beautiful student-made card I had ever seen; I could tell the boy had put a great deal of time and effort into it. In it, he wrote, “I really hope you can have a great day today and everyday.”
I still have that card on the wall near my desk, though it is now worn and faded. The student transferred out two years ago; he still calls me every now and then. His card gave me the courage to dry my tears and get back to work. My life was not over.
I started my career teaching third grade, and it felt like I got a love note from a student every single day. I would politely thank the giver and tape it to the side of my tall metal file cabinet. I quickly ran out of room there, and so I posted them on the sides of my desk, too. After a while, I had to cycle them into a big brown envelop.
One of those little guys had written me an apology for being bad. At the end of the note, he wrote, “I wish you were my mother.” Tears. That note changed my perspective on him and all the little challenging kiddos in my class.
I used to tell my colleagues all the time, “At least I don’t have to take them home.” But after reading his I’m-so-sorry letter, I would have adopted the little boy if I could have. Even at nine, he knew that his behavioral problems stemmed from his dysfunctional home life.
Now that I teach middle schoolers, student love notes are rare. (On Valentine’s Day, I did get a “peace rocks” holographic card from a girl and a beautiful brown-stone bracelet from a boy.) My advice to any teacher is to save all the notes—even if the pictures look like crap and you can’t read the kid’s handwriting. Save them even if you’re a macho man teacher, not a sentimental, sappy, girly girl like me.
On those lonely days, those extra sad I-don’t-know-if-I can-do-this-job-anymore stressful moments, pull out those letters and let them speak to you. They do speak, loudly.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.