Dear Rosalyn

education, photography

Dear Rosalyn,

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,

Ms. Jackson

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Dear Raul

education, photographyDear Raul,

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong, it learned how to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

It learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

When no one else even cared.

Three days until the STAAR test.

Two extra tutoring sessions after school this week.

One last chance to demonstrate that you are academically prepared for the 7th grade.

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete

Had damaged petals.

On the contrary, we would all celebrate its

Tenacity.

We would all love its will to reach the sun.

You are the rose. This is the concrete. I have no doubt that you will show our school, your family and this community that you are smart and capable.

I would say “good luck,” but you don’t need it. Just be your brilliant, focused self.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

(quotes from Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete)

Dear Karah

education, photography

Dear Karah,

Overwhelmed by the nine short days until the STAAR test, I was crying in the hallway this morning. Inside my head, I heard the all-too-familiar chorus of accusatory voices.

“You haven’t done enough to prepare your students for this test.”

“They won’t pass, and it’s all your fault.”

“You can’t even get them to stay in their seats and stop shouting out in the middle of a lesson; how could you have imagined that they would be reading on grade level by April 22?”

Unexpectedly, I heard your voice cut through the clutter in my mind.

“Ms. Jackson, you ok? Why are you crying?”

I couldn’t begin to explain what I had hoped to accomplish in nine short months. How I repeatedly failed you and your classmates every time I delivered lessons that weren’t rigorous enough or relevant or interesting or even properly copied because I was too tired to make sure the pages stapled in the right order.

“Just allergies, Karah. My eyes are watering a little, but I’m fine.”

“Oh, ok… Are you allergic to bad behavior, Miss? Cuz I’m pretty done with the way they been treating you in 3rd period.”

In that moment, the angry mob in my head stopped to listen to you. I had to ask myself what I originally set out to do when I signed up to teach.

I wanted to foster genuine, transformative relationships with students who have so often been overlooked. I wanted my students to learn how to read, for goodness’ sake, and we still have a long way to go there, yes, but the STAAR test is just one measure. This exam is only a sliver of what a you and your classmates have learned in a year.

What about empathy, respect, and compassion? What about a true love of reading? The grit and tenacity that unfurls as you put your pencil to the scantron one more time, even if we both know your score is likely going to be lower than average.

I smiled and looked down at you, wiping away the last stubborn tear.

“Yes, the doctor says I’m allergic to bad behavior, and the STAAR test.”

Your eyes widened as you shook your head and giggled.

“You funny, Ms. Jackson. I hope you move up and teach us in 7th grade next year.”

The truth is, you deserve more than a teacher who is funny and fun. With the STAAR test looming, I have to confront the brutal facts that I was not a strong enough teacher to lead you, academically, to the place you deserve to be at this point in the year.

We didn’t make up the years of reading growth that needed to happen, but you did improve, academically and as a woman of character and integrity. Perhaps there is hope yet for the remaining weeks. I’m not giving up on teaching the TEKS you need to know for 7th grade or modeling character qualities that will carry you through your adolescent years, like kindness and courage.

We have much to learn and very little time. You with me?

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

Dear JaKorey

education, photography

Dear JaKorey,

Standing in your living room last night, I was overcome with conflicting emotions.

This was not the first time I had spoken to your mother; as you well know, we have frequent phone calls about your behavior. But, this was our most difficult conversation, and it had little to do with your actions in my classroom.

Looking around the crowded house, I could see that it was full of people, yet devoid of life. Death, in some ways, doesn’t discriminate. We will all pass on from this life eventually. But, if you’re a young, Black boy in the South, Death tends to come too soon and too violently.

I read the story in the paper yesterday, and I was saddened by the loss of yet another young life, before I knew his name, before I realized he was your brother.

“Student who skipped school Friday found dead in creek.”

An insufficient headline, capturing one poor decision, instead of his lifetime of choices and memories. Made me wonder how each of us might be remembered someday.

Despite his choices at the end of his short life, I grieve the loss of his potential. I mourn for you and your mother.

As we joined hands in your living room and bowed our heads to pray, your mother’s words filled the room with such passion and strength that I couldn’t keep my eyes closed. Lifting my head, I noticed photos of you and your brother standing in Sunday best, smiling. Glancing down, I saw your feet in socks that reached halfway up your shins; your left foot bouncing up and down, up and down.

Child-sized feet in adolescent socks. A smattering of photos, memories. Life and death.

You and I have never seen eye to eye. Your choices in my classroom have been far from excellent. I may often be frustrated with you, but I realized last night, with your hand clasped in my right and your mother’s in my left, that it doesn’t really matter. I’m not giving up on you. I care too much about you to let you slip through yet another year of school without a fire in your soul for the value of your own life.

Did you hear your mother’s prayer? She pleaded for all the little boys and girls at our school to be touched by the message of your brother’s death. She begged God to let her son, your brother, be the last student in this neighborhood to make a poor choice and pay the highest price for it.

My compassion for you is so strong that I will not be easy on you when you return. If you continue to choose inappropriate behaviors in class, I will be firm with you; I need you to understand that. I owe it to your mother, your brother and to you.

I can’t make decisions for you, JaKorey, and I can’t change the course of anyone’s life. I will, however, make it very difficult for you to do anything other than become the best version of yourself, as a student, a son and a young man.

I am devastated by the tragic loss of your brother. If you need space, quiet, time to process and heal, or a listening ear, I want my classroom to be a refuge for you.

Have courage. You are not alone.

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 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