The most important moment in my high school career had nothing to do with grades, awards, or really school itself. And I guess, if I’m honest, it was more of a realization than a precise moment. In my memory though, it feels like a decisive point in time.
Somewhere in my sophomore year, a determination settled in my heart: I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I was going to be myself and if that wasn’t enough, then I didn’t need the weight of that judgment in my life. And in return I would quit (or try my best to quit) judging other people.
It wasn’t defiance or some kind of a front or a wall that I was putting up—it was the truth of my heart. It was me making peace with myself.
I’ll never forget the look on his face. He walked into my classroom exhausted and distraught and ready to fall into pieces. He looked at me and said, “I’m here because I knew I wouldn’t be judged and I need to talk.”
My heart was ready to carry the weight it would receive. I was ready to listen and accept whatever it was he needed to share.
I had already accepted him and nothing could change that. Thankfully, somehow, he knew that.
“I’m a non-writer and a struggling reader.”
Those were the first words she spoke to me as she entered my classroom on the first day of school. I had never heard a 15 year old identify herself in these terms before this moment. She introduced herself this way almost as if this information, that she believed so intently, was more important than her name.
I told her, “Well, we will see about that.” I gave her a smile and made a note that her first reading and writing goals would be nothing more than to work on her confidence.
Doubting the possibility of any kind of growth, she was skeptical.
I knew better. I could see what she couldn’t about herself.
It was May 2014 and I had just become a Heinemann Fellow. I had no idea what that meant exactly and when people asked I am pretty sure my answer was some variation of “I think I will do some research and maybe write a little bit and I know I get some free books.”
I never even really expected to be chosen—I just wanted to try for it. I had never written professionally. I knew I liked to write, but I didn’t think any of my writing was very good. I didn’t consider myself a writer for sure. A teacher of writing, yes. But a writer, no way.
So, there I was at the Heinemann reception at the ILA conference in New Orleans. I didn’t know a soul in the room, but I was totally awestruck because so many of the teacher authors I admired were present. That whole high school confidence “I don’t care what people think” thing was out the window…I was nervous! I wanted to impress, to fit in and I couldn’t see a way that I could ever measure up.
But I was in a room full of teachers and, you know, teachers have this sensibility about them, a certain kindness.
I was introduced to Ellin Keene early in the evening. She would be “in charge” of the Fellows—we were her babiesJShe had been one of the readers of my application. Upon finding this out, I immediately began to summon up an apology for not having submitted professional writing, only a creative personal piece. Before the words could exit my lips, Ellin said, “You are a writer, you know that, right?” and proceeded to talk about how my piece had moved her.
I was a writer? I was certain she was thinking of the wrong person, but she knew my work. It had stayed with her. It had meant something to her. I was a writer.
Confidence restored. I haven’t looked back.
The power of a teacher.
We all have stories to tell. Stories of our interactions with a text…stories of our experience in the world…stories that help us figure out who we really are…stories that help us heal…stories of endless variation. This includes our students. Grades and fears of judgment/fitting in and getting into college should not limit the possibilities and potential of those stories.
I think sometimes, as high school teachers, we forget that we teach kids. That is not to diminish their intelligence or to challenge their maturity or the value of their voice. I am awestruck by high school students every single day. I think they are brilliant and funny and worthy of being heard in this world. That is why I teach them. That is why I have agreed to work in an administrative role in addition to my teaching duties–because I think so highly of high school students.
But at the same time, we get caught up in material and in testing and in expectations and we forget. And our students have this uncanny ability to appear so grown up on the outside that it becomes easy to overlook the fact that on the inside they are still just kids trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world. And they are trying to accomplish this in the midst of enormous pressures from the outside. Our kids, our students, are faced with impossible expectation for what it means to succeed, to fit in, to be smart, to be normal, to be accepted. The last thing they need is another grown up in power proving to them that they will never measure up.
Our students sit in front of us—a composition of a whole lifetime of stories and experiences that have shaped their literacy lives as well as the person they have become over time. They are still growing and still determining the person they want to be. They need a little extra grace and some positive words from their teachers. They need us to be able to see beyond the facade of the moment and understand that there is so much more complexity to them. They need us to consider them—not as students or as a job, but as human beings…even when it is hard…even when they skillfully deliver attitude or appear entirely apathetic…they need us to see beyond the show. They need to be accepted.
Is that always easy? Does that mean we don’t usher them towards any kind of growth? Absolutely not. Accepting people for who they are, as they are, is never easy.
There are so many ways to grant those positive words though—I’ve written before about writers notebooks, but they extend a gorgeous means for kids to figure out who they are, how they feel, and to begin to accept themselves (they are pretty handy for adults too…just saying…) But also, as teachers, we can name kids as readers and writers without negativity and be able to speak specifically to each about why. We can write small notes of response and reflection on their work that extend the insight they don’t have into their own work instead of simply marking a rubric or issuing a grade, We can ask about how they felt as they were reading and writing and then we can reassure them along the way. We talk to them sincerely about the unique gifts they bring to writing (and to reading and to the world at large)—to let them know that not everyone else can do what they can.
It takes a little time. But these are the words they will carry with them. The time it takes us to offer this encouragement is worth the lifetime of effect that encouragement could have.
I think Mary Oliver’s “Roses” had it right…
they said. “But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.”
Having finally recovered from six months of debilitating vertigo, I finally had the chance last week to sit down with my youngest son and watch The Greatest Showman. My kids absolutely adore this movie and this soundtrack so it was fun to get to watch it with him.
We were sitting together on the couch when the song “This is Me” (written by Benj Paskek, Justin Paul) was performed and I got a little teary eyed. He was worried for me. He said, “Mom, why are you crying? This is everyone’s favorite song! You should love it!”
I did love it. It was perfect. We paused the movie so I could explain that all I could ever want in this world is for him and his brother and every kid I teach to feel this way:
“But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me”
I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m just a sap who cries at weird places in movies, but sometimes it’s the small moments that create the movement. Felt worth the conversation to me.