It feels like just yesterday when I was standing before your class on the first day of school, reading my favorite passage from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
“While we read, I want you all to think about how a story about bees in a glass jar relates to being a 6th grade student in South Oak Cliff,” I announced and began reading:
“At night, I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making the propeller sound, a high pitched zzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seem.
One morning a bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall. I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of a clear glass jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over again with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.”
“Did the bee belong in the glass jar? What did it love to do?”
“I’d made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing. But the bee could see out of the glass, and it knew that it was trapped inside the jar.
I brought the jar level with my nose. ‘Look at this thing fight,’ I thought.
I spent the rest of the morning capturing bees.
That night I looked at the jar of bees on my dresser. The poor creatures perched on the bottom barely moving, obviously pining away for flight. I remembered then the way they’d slipped from the cracks in my walls and flown for the sheer joy of it.”
“Why are the bees barely moving? Can you relate to this story yet? If so, how?”
“I unscrewed the lid and set it aside.
‘You can go,’ I said.
But the bees remained there, like planes on a runway not knowing they’d been cleared for takeoff. They crawled on their stalk legs around the curved perimeters of the glass as if the world had shrunk to that jar. I tapped the glass, even laid the jar on its side, but those crazy bees stayed put.”
“Why do you think the bees stayed put, even after they were free?”
A quivering hand from the middle of the room: “Maybe they didn’t want to fly anymore,” you whispered. “Maybe the bees just gave up on doing what they loved.”
The story resonated deeply with you. Over the past ten months, at lunch and during P.E., on my planning period and after school, we have talked about how you can relate to those exhausted bees. You told me that you often feel trapped in a glass jar of poverty.
“Why try to fight for a better life someday? This is all there is for me,” you said at lunch one day in October with a fire burning in your eyes and fists clenched.
You were believing the lie that poverty is destiny, because you sensed that you were trapped, just like the bees in the jar were prevented from doing what they loved to do, because they were held back by a lid that limited their world to perimeters of the glass.
What’s worse is that your jar is glass, meaning you can see out of it. The opportunities for improving your life trajectory – to finish school, attend and graduate from college and get a well-paying job – are visible from behind the glass, but seemingly unattainable.
I chose to teach in South Oak Cliff to help you and your classmates recognize and overcome limitations like poverty, so that you could discover your limitless potential.
All year, I’ve been twisting and turning the tightly sealed lid on your jar. Why do we read 20 minutes a night? Why do I drill grammar and spelling? What is the point of being asked to think and articulate and communicate your ideas in a way that other people will find compelling?
There is a lid on your jar, and the work that we have been accomplishing in my classroom is clearing a path for you to fly freely.
In August, I promised I would be your advocate. I told you that I would get to know you personally so that I could provide the help and support that you need to be successful in school and beyond. I told you I would stand up for you, take responsibility for helping you in every way possible, seek out opportunities that will help you reach your personal goals, answer your questions and find the resources you need to be successful.
But you and I both know that my hard work to muscle the lid off your jar will never be enough.
In The Secret Life of Bees, even after the little girl removes the barriers that prevent the bees from being free to do what they love, “the bees remained there, like planes on a runway not knowing they’d been cleared for takeoff.”
Your reading level has improved by two years in the span of just one school year. Your writing and critical thinking now set the standard for your peers. That pesky lid is loosening, and now the rest of the story is in your hands. If you continue to believe the lie that you are not able to achieve your dreams, your world will stay small, confined to the limits others have placed on you.
Don’t forget that you are a bumblebee. Scientists used to think that your body was too heavy to fly. That your wings couldn’t possibly support your weight.
So how does a young woman growing up in the “wrong” neighborhood without proper documentation or fluent English language skills spread her wings and fly?
She beats her flimsy, overlooked wings 11,000 times per second. She works harder to do the things she loves to prove the statistics wrong.
Just like the bumblebee, you cannot afford to let other people’s ideas about what you are capable of limit your potential. You must work hard to reach your goals and advocate for yourself if you want to be free.
Poverty is not destiny.
Even bumblebees can fly.
Your jar is open.
All my love,
I adore seeing your smiling face in the hallway every morning.
“Ms. Jackson!” you squeal as if it’s the first time you’ve seen me in months, rather than hours. “I can’t wait ‘til I’m in your class next year.”
Well. I have a secret. Can you keep it?
I’m not coming back next year.
“You are going to have the most amazing 6th grade reading teacher, my dear!”
How long is that line going to work before you realize that I’m not talking about myself? I dislike crafting these vague statements and lies of omission, but I’m not ready to let everyone know yet.
I will miss your smiling face and the opportunity to build relationships with the 107 other 5th grade students I won’t teach next year.
But I will not miss teaching. I will not miss these fluorescent lights, the crowded halls, this classroom.
I’m not cut out for this. I’m not the best person for this job. You deserve a teacher with more experience, grit, creativity, passion and disciplinary skills.
I truly, deeply, hope that you will have the best reading teacher in the world next year.
But she won’t be me.
All my love,
How does it feel to walk around a college campus? I noticed that you lingered a little longer than your classmates at the library, and I saw the way you ran your fingers over the desktop in the auditorium. It made me wonder, can you picture yourself here? You’d be the first in your entire family to attend a college or university.
Have we prepared you to persevere through all four years or more? The statistics for college readiness and persistence aren’t exactly encouraging for a young woman of your ethnicity and zip code. Some studies say only 15-17% of Latinas who enroll in a college or university graduate in five years or less. And just the other day, I overheard a discussion between education reform leaders where they said that 2 – not 2%, but literally 2 students – who graduated from our neighborhood high school last year met the qualifications to be considered college-ready.
I want to tell you that the world is yours to take, that a college education is a real possibility for you some day, because I truly believe that it is. But you’ve started this race on uneven ground in hand-me-down tennis shoes.
Will you have a strong enough academic foundation, the broad life skills that will be required of you, a dedicated support network, sufficient money and financial aid, adequate test-taking savvy and cultural competence to make it all the way to and through college?
Let me be clear: I believe in you. But the system? The education system is failing its promises, because it has not set you up to be successful. You’ll have to work harder than just about everyone else. You might need more resources on your collegiate journey, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for them.
I believe that you are more than a statistic.
All my love,
Thank you for your bravery and honesty today. It takes strength of character most people have not developed by age 12 to see what you saw and report it to me.
I know you’re worried that students will call you a “snitch,” because you “tattled” on one of the most popular boys in the 6th grade. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that from happening, but sometimes, when we stand up for what is right, the people who have made a shameful decision feel the weight of their guilt and look to shift the attention to someone else. You’ll have to be prepared for this.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
I am proud of you for doing what you know is right.
All my love,
I know our school day is long. I too, want to go home and take a nap around 3:30 every afternoon when we see kids from nearby schools skipping past our window on their way home.
But you and I both know the intentional reasons why we don’t dismiss until 4:55. You are safer at school during that often-grueling, additional hour and a half than you are wandering around Deerpath Park or walking past the McDonalds on the corner of Keist and Illinois. And, this extra time at school, when used for its intended purpose of character building and additional academic instruction, is essential for ensuring that you and your classmates are on a path to college.
However, when you come into my classroom at 3:30 for afternoon advisory and decide it’s a good idea to NaeNae around the room with an open sunbutter snack cup in your hand, you are not making a wise use of our extended school day.
The sunbutter dance move you invented today created a gigantic mess of sticky, brown goo all over my classroom blinds. Mr. Torres had to spend additional time out of his day to clean up after you.
I’ve already spoken with your aunt. She and I agreed that your actions in afternoon advisory merit a further extension of your school day tomorrow. You will help Mr. Torres clean after school until 6 p.m. to make up for the extra work you created for him today.
I need you to be excellent from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. I expect the best from you, because to demand anything less would be to teach you that the work we are doing together is not valuable.
All my love,