Dear Hernandez

education, photography

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”- Muriel Rukeyser

Dear Hernandez,

One of my favorite moments so far this year happened on Friday, as you dashed out of my classroom for Spring Break.

“Miss, can I borrow a few books to read next week? I just really can’t stop thinking about Kira and Matty, and I was wondering if maybe I could borrow the whole series…”

Do you remember the little boy who hated reading? The boy who despised being called on to read aloud in front of the entire class?

Can you believe he’s grown into a young man who wants to spend his Spring Break reading an entire book series?

Your passion for reading has reignited mine. Thank you for reminding me of the glorious feeling of being wrapped up tightly in the lives of fictional characters that are nothing and yet everything like our own.

Enjoy The Giver series. Yes, I actually want you to read for the fun of it! Don’t stress over vocabulary and plot development. Soak in the beauty of the words etched onto the page. Immerse yourself in a foreign land and time, allowing Jonas, Kira and Matty to lead you on a journey.

I can’t wait to sit down with you next week and discuss the parts that made us laugh, cry and wonder about the wide world all around us.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

Dear Ahmad

education, photography

Dear Ahmad,

I’m tired. The STAAR test is 54 days away, and it’s already haunting my waking and sleeping hours.

This morning, I decided to treat myself to Starbucks. I set my alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual, hurried myself along as I got ready, and dashed through the drive through. I couldn’t have been more excited. A chilly morning, a long week ahead, but I had my favorite drink in hand.

Setting up my classroom, I placed my keys, coffee and computer on the projector cart. Opening my laptop to log in, I tilted the screen directly into my three-quarters-still-full, steaming hot caramel macchiato.

As the coffee crashed to the floor, dangerously close to all the cords and wires on the projector cart, I stared in disbelief.

It was small, silly and stupid, but I felt totally defeated. Perhaps not unlike you are feeling right now.

I know how hard you’ve been trying to get your attitude together and apply yourself in class. I’ve seen you make an earnest effort to be your best.

But today, in the cafeteria, a minor slip. You were talking to Lincoln when you were supposed to be walking in silently. When Mr. Bain corrected you, I’m guessing it felt like your coffee had hit the floor. The extra effort, the promise of a good day, splat. Ruined.

I have to admit, your reaction was better than mine. I stood in my classroom and fought off a ridiculous urge to cry over spilled coffee. You walked calmly over to your assigned seat, stretched out across the bench, closed your eyes and said:

“Holy Spirit, take me.”

I wanted to join you with a hearty “amen, to that!”

The STAAR test is 54 days away. We can persevere. We will continue to put in the extra effort, get up a little earlier, work a little harder and keep the faith.

Don’t be discouraged or lose heart.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Chellise

Dear Chellise,

Day after day, you set a positive example for your peers. I watch you tirelessly follow the rules, typically with a smile on your face.

But, ultimately, we’re all human. We all make choices, and occasionally, mistakes.

I have two younger sisters. We’ve always been the best of friends, but there have been moments when we haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye.

When I was in first grade, my sister Lauren was in kindergarten. She was learning to spell her name, and I was learning to tie my shoes. Life was pretty simple back then. One day, we got into a petty argument over one of my Barbie dolls.

Ten minutes later, stewing in time-out, I eyed the wooden coffee table in arm’s reach. My mind reeled with the injustice of the situation. It was my doll. My right to play with her whenever I wanted to. Why was I sitting in timeout?

I picked up a pen, leaned over the coffee table and slowly, methodically, began carving…

This morning, when you walked into school, you had a decision to make.

Leave the iPhone in your pocket? Or follow school policy and turn it in at the front desk?

Were you simply tired of doing the right thing, making a purposeful choice to keep the phone with you? Or was it an accident? Did you honestly forget that you still had it?

My mom’s gasp reverberated throughout the house.

“Lauren Merrill Jackson, come here immediately.”

Unsuspecting, cheerful Lauren skipped into the living room. Six letters carved with kindergarten-esque penmanship marred the coffee table.

A shrill, clipped noise jarred my otherwise silent classroom. Students erupted into chaos.

“A phone, miss!”

“Somebody tryin’ to cheat!”

I let it go on too long: Lauren’s insistence that she did not carve her own name into the table and my mom’s bewildered investigation.

Sitting in my room, playing with the coveted Barbie doll, I felt prideful, even elated, that I had found the most clever way to get back at my sister for attempting to steal my toy, my fun.

I heard Lauren start to sniffle, as she promised over and over that she didn’t commit this outrageous deed.

Something inside my cold, dark heart began to melt.

Am I the kind of person who does something like this? I wondered aloud to the plastic, too perfect, 12-inch friend in my hand.

The weight of that cell phone was heavy, wasn’t it?

The glow of the screen illuminated who you are and what decisions you make under pressure.

Is this what I want to be known for? Cheating on a quiz?

“I carved her name in the table,” my voice, dripping with shame, cut through the tension in the living room.

I had to drop the emotional weight I was carrying, even though I knew it would be painful and embarrassing. I had been cruel; I had lied. But I didn’t want to be that person anymore. So I confessed, and I traded my guilt for a just punishment.

You are not a liar. You proved that today when you were the first student in the cellphone cheating scandal to step forward.

Two other students have also admitted that they were involved, following your positive example yet again.

Believe it or not, my mom still has that coffee table. It’s covered with a white, lacy tablecloth, a symbol that my egregious sin was forgiven. But sometimes, Lauren and I move the lamp and the stack of heavy books, fold up the tablecloth and run our fingers along the curves of the letters of her name.

This decision will follow you. Just like the scarred coffee table, you won’t ever be able to completely erase this mistake, but you certainly can move forward.

In college, you can be removed from a class or expelled from a university altogether for cheating. Let being caught in the 6th grade be your ruined coffee table. Let it be a reminder to you that a decision to lie, cheat and not be true to yourself is never worth it.

Remember who you are and who you are not.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Rosa

Dear Rosa,

I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Riveting and suspenseful, the book is one of my new favorites, and I would highly recommend that you read it.

One of the main characters, Werner, is a young German boy growing up in the shadows of Hitler’s Third Reich. Werner is a genius – an expert at fixing radios and solving math and science problems. His dream is to become one of Germany’s leading scientists, but as war ravages Europe, his plans must be put on hold, as he is required to fight.

At one point, his commanding officer, watching Werner repair equipment with brilliance and speed, remarks sadly, “What you could be.”

I had a moment today where the same wondering floated to my mind as you creatively and analytically approached the final details of your group project.

What you could be.

…If you dumped your deplorable boyfriend.

…If you hadn’t texted him a revealing picture of yourself.

…If you believed that you deserved more than a 12-year-old boy who would exploit you by sharing that photo with his friends.

What you could be.

An 11-year-old in healthy relationships her friends and her family.

A student on the path to college and greater opportunity.

A young woman who defies the stereotypes about “girls from this neighborhood.”

What you can be.

It’s not too late. You can still be all of those things and so much more than anything I’ve dreamed up for you. What’s holding you back? Do you believe you deserve more than this? That you could be, can be so much more?

I know you’re not facing Hitler’s Germany. But you are facing internal obstacles that are challenging nonetheless. More than determining whether you are in love with a young man, you are also learning how to love and respect yourself.

What you could be is ultimately up to you. Who are you today? Who are you becoming?

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Omar

Dear Omar,

Can I let you in on a secret? I hate standardized testing almost as much as you do.

For teachers, MAP testing is a logistical and emotional nightmare. Shouldering the stress of 102 preteens who want to prove that they are smarter than an often-ambiguous test is nerve-wracking. Battling 34 computers in various states of reliability with chargers and extension cords everywhere is enough to drive a teacher mad.

“What’s this word?”

I can’t tell you that. It’s a reading test.

“The “M” key is missing. I can’t type my answer.”

It’s right here. Press this divot in the keyboard.

“My internet isn’t working.”

Have you tried hitting the refresh button?

“My computer just crashed.”

Why isn’t the charger plugged in?

“I’m distracted. Nelson is breathing real loud.”

Despite all the frustrations and the grueling three-hour testing blocks, today was an incredible day. You had the second highest growth in the entire 6th grade: 22 points in 5 months. Elisa grew 19, Angelique 21, and Keenan grew 39 points.

I am ridiculously proud of you. In fact, I am especially proud of you. Keenan exhibited more growth, yes, but he told me that he didn’t put forth his best effort on the fall assessment, so his amount of growth is a little inflated. I have watched you pour your energy into these exams and into class every day without fail. Your growth is impressive, but not astonishing. Your growth is an accurate reflection of your hard work and effort.

Hard work pays off, and you should be very proud of yourself. Keep up the good work!

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Taye

education, photography

Dear Taye,

In the awkward moment of calm after the chaos today, I slowly surveyed the classroom. Jerome was perched in his desk, knees by his face, turned toward the back of the room. Lincoln’s head hung low, as he squeezed a torn paper in his fist. Nikkya, Amber and Marcela were crying softly, and the echoes of my unpleasant tirade made the room feel thick with anger.

“Man! This would’ve never happened in my old class!

Your voice, stronger and clearer than I’ve ever heard it, sliced through the frustration in the room.

“I want to learn things!”

I could not contain my disbelief. In a matter of minutes, you transformed from a whiny, often off-task preteen from my 2nd period class into a scholar-leader of 3rd period. I have never heard you say that you want to learn.

Looking a Jerome, still contorted in the desk in front of you, you became a young man of conviction and leadership.

“Come on man, you need to get serious! Face the front!”

Jerome giggled awkwardly but refused to budge, while the rest of us held our breath in admiration of your courage and conviction.

“Now, come on. You know how to do this. Put your feet under your desk! Get with it. Sit up straight! Look at the teacher! Man, this is baby stuff. Move it.”

Not only did Jerome listen to you and change his actions, but did you notice that Lincoln lifted his head and dropped his paper? Even Julian straightened up and faced the front.

I couldn’t have done a better job of getting the class back on task. In fact, you showed more maturity and leadership than I did today. I let the frustration get to me, and I yelled. You took the same emotion and calmly but firmly addressed the class as one of their own and simultaneously as a leader who was ready to rise above pettiness and learn.

Honestly, I was initially against the schedule change that caused you to move to this class. As you witnessed today, there is a unique blend of personalities in this room that can bring out the worst. Or, in your case, bring out the best.

I am proud of you, inspired by you and thankful that you are in this class. I promise that you will learn in 3rd period. We all will, with your help.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Julian

education, photography

Dear Julian,

I am holding you to a high standard.

Yes, you could say I’m being picky. Writing your first and last name on every paper you turn in is required in this classroom. You are not a rock star, yet. Once upon a time, even Oprah, Bono and Rihanna had to write their full names in English class. Someday, when the world knows you as “Julian, just Julian,” you are welcome to perfect your autograph. Until then, I expect to be able to read a legible version of your first and last name at the top of every paper I receive from you.

The rumors are true. I’m cracking down on spelling and punctuation as well. By this point in the year, we should all know the difference between “their, they’re and there.” Words that are included in the reading passage must be spelled correctly in your answer. And for goodness’ sake, you must have a period, exclamation point or question mark at the end of every sentence and a capital letter at the beginning of the next one! By the way, abbreviations are not suitable for academic writing. LOL. #smh

Why does this matter?

I’m not trying to torture you with nit-picky details. I’m training you for excellence.

Think about playing soccer. Imagine that Coach Maddox shows up to practice today and instructs you all to run a warm-up lap around the field.

Let’s say that instead of running your lap, you decide to walk, and Coach doesn’t stop you. What happens next week? You’ll probably walk again and again until maybe you even stop taking a warm-up lap at all.

Before long, you’ll be sitting in the grass, staring at your cleats, while your teammates become faster and stronger with each lap they run. All you’ll become is smug and stagnant. While it probably seems like you got an easy break, the small habit of choosing not to run will negatively affect you when it matters most.

If Coach did not hold you responsible for showing up to practice and putting in your best effort every time, you would not develop the discipline and skills you need to be excellent.

Do you think Messi sits out his warm-up lap? Or is he the one leading his team in both the daily disciplines at practice and the number of goals scored on an international stage?

Excellence is in the small details. Academically and athletically, you have the potential to be great. Start by taking pride in your work. I’ll know you’re proud of what you turn into me when I see your full name, best handwriting and spelling.

As small and significant as a warm-up lap, these habits will serve you well if you invest in them.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Keandra

education, photography

Dear Keandra,

They are wrong.

Ugly is not your reflection in the mirror but a reflection of their character.

Ugly is on the inside, festering under their skin.

They are wrong, and they are bullying you.

“Horse Face,” Mark Milligan smirked as he slid into the seat next to me on the first day of seventh grade. “We’ll call the new girl Horse Face!”

Everyone got a good laugh except for the apparently long-nosed, big teethed girl sitting in my desk. His words, foolish and mean-spirited, drew enormous, hot tears from my equine eyes.

More than a decade has passed since that traumatic first day of seventh grade, and yet I’m still a little insecure about whether my face actually does favor, of all creatures, a horse.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. It’s time for a realignment of the way we talk about what counts as ugly. Faces and braces, frizzy hairs and gawking stares, vicious lies and teary eyes. We have to stop tearing each other down and confront our own insecurities deep within.

That’s why those girls are saying mean things about you. You know that, right? They’re insecure, so they say something ugly before someone else can call them the very words they’re using to put you down.

It will get better. I have already met with the girls and their parents. Insecure or not, there is no excuse for the way they are treating you, and it has been made clear exactly what their consequences will be if they continue to bully you.

They are wrong about you. You are full of beauty and strength. Keep your chin up. They don’t deserve to get you down.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Randall

education, photography

Dear Randall,

Sometimes, a secret to life presents itself over a sticky menu at a hamburger joint.

“Do you want sweet potato fries or regular fries?” the heavily-tattooed waiter asked patiently, as my mom puzzled over her choice.

“Um… Sweet potato! No, I think I want regular… Oh, I don’t know!” she sighed in exasperation.

The waiter’s beard curled into a smile, as he said six words that have become a Jackson family motto:

“Don’t fake who you really are.”

Suddenly mom’s choice was easy. In the end, she didn’t really want fancy fries; she wanted regular, salty, delicious French fries. She realized she was tempted to order sweet potato fries because they were trendy.

Most of the time we are faced with decisions that are more complicated than what type of side to order with our hamburgers. But the wise words of our waiter still ring true. If you know who you are, you can make decisions that you are proud of and that you won’t regret.

It’s a new year. You have a blank slate and a fresh start. Beginning today, you get to decide what you will be known for.

Who are you, really?

Are you the kid who storms out of class when he doesn’t get his way? Or is that how you fake who you really are, as you try to cover the pain of burying your brother a month before his fifteenth birthday?

Will you chose to continue to act like you don’t care about failing grades and daily phone calls to mom? Or will you be the young man I’ve seen glimpses of – the brilliant, kind and courageous Randall?

I have believed in you long before you believed in you. And I’m not finished holding on to hope. On this first day back to school, I want to challenge you to be the best version of yourself.

Who will you be? What will you do? What will people remember about you?

No one can choose for you, but you are not alone. I’m here to support and encourage you into becoming the man you and I both know that you can be.

From sweet potatoes to salty French fries, whether it’s a little decision or a big one, don’t fake who you really are, and don’t forget that I believe in you.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Tyrek

education, photography

Dear Tyrek,

I saw a young man just a few years older than you on the news last night. According to the judge at his trial, this man made a series of devastating and cruel decisions. The jury has decided he should lose his life for the crimes he committed.

This young man awaiting his fate on death row has your same first and last name.

When the story started on the news, I heard your name and gasped. The thought that any of my students could be on the news in such a capacity horrified me.

I want to open up the newspaper and see your name on the A/B honor roll and a photo of you sinking the game-winning basket against Lariat Prep next week. Stay on the straight path, and make us proud. Unstructured time can open up tempting possibilities. Please be safe and smart during your last week of winter break.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson