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 Jada

education, photography

Dear Jada,

Please don’t be embarrassed that you are hungry. I am so grateful you opened up to me in your letter. You’re right; your behavior has been irrational lately. Now I know why.

I can’t give you any cash for food. But if you look under the plant on my desk on your way out of class today, you will find an envelop with several important papers inside. The yellow sheet explains that your meal account balance has been paid, and you have enough credit now for lunch and breakfast this week.

I talked to Ms. Johnson about how to connect your mom with a program that will provide food every day that you are not in school over winter break. I know how hard your mom is working to provide for you, your brothers and your sisters. I also know this time of year is expensive, and our community has a program for families who are in a tough spot financially.

You have nothing to apologize for and nothing to be embarrassed about. As much as possible, I want you to focus on preparing for your midterms. Trust that the adults in your life are working together to make sure this winter break will be different.

You will not go hungry.

All my love,

Ms. Jackson

Dear Adjatay

education, photography

Dear Adjatay,

You are not “just another Black boy who has been kicked out of school.” You are talented, empathetic, perceptive and thoughtful. I’m sorry I did not get the chance to tell you that one more time before you walked out the doors of our school forever.

Remember the day you made me cry in the middle of class? I wasn’t actually crying because you were throwing trash at me. I was crying because with each flick of wadded up paper, used tissue and broken pencil shred, I saw you throwing away your potential. I saw you giving up on your brilliant self.

Last year, when I first met you, you were reading on a kindergarten reading level. Alberto, Sophia, Cristofer, you and I met every morning to sound out basic phonetic combinations and learn about Spot and Dot. This year, each time you raise your hand to read aloud a 6th grade-level text in class, I beam with pride. You are phenomenal, and you have the potential inside of you to do amazing things.

But we failed you, Adjatay. We couldn’t provide the emotionally safe space you needed to function at your best at school. I am sorry.

“I am sorry.”

Those were the last three words I heard you say as the glass door clicked closed behind you.

We couldn’t let you stay, not after the incident in the cafeteria. Still, I didn’t want to let you go.

Do you know that I fought for you to stay at our school? I stood up to defend you in a room of nine adults. I reminded them of your perceptiveness, your kindness, your talent. I begged them to let you stay.

If you remember nothing else from our two years together, please hear this; you are not a bad kid. You are not a problem. You are not a burden. You are a side effect of a broken system. Your genetic lottery landed you in two dangerous categories in modern American education. You are a Black male, and according to your IEP, you are emotionally disturbed.

Paperwork and official classifications aside, you are missed. You are cared for deeply. Your life matters. You still have at least one adult who hasn’t given up on you yet.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Agustin

education, photography

Dear Agustin,

I wish you had told me sooner. I can only help you be successful to the extent that you are honest with me and you let me understand the complexities you are facing.

Pain cannot be silenced. He parades around in disguises when we try to hide him from others, but he will not go away until faced and dealt with.

Without knowing what was occurring in your life outside of school, here is how I described your first semester of 6th grade to your mom in our parent conference yesterday:

In August and September, Agustin was a solid B student. While not always intrinsically motivated, he responded well to reminders to complete his work and stay on task in class. He was pleasant, funny and had perfect attendance. Occasionally, he got a little too silly with his friends, but he would politely and respectfully bring it back when corrected.

 In October and November, Agustin’s grades slipped to low C’s, and he almost never turned in completed homework. He began to display an attitude of careless and reckless behavior. When corrected, he talked back, sulked or even walked out of class. He has not laughed or joked with his friends in his usual, carefree way. He skipped my class on three different occasions in the past month.

Agustin, I wish I could have had this conversation with your mom and your dad. But you and I both know that this is no longer possible. Your dad told me in August that he brought you to this country – facing incredible hardships along the way – so that you could have the best education possible.

Would he be proud of the way you are letting pain and sadness erode the gift he gave you?

Your mom told me that he has applied for a work visa. I am hopeful that you will see him again soon, and during the in-between time, I want to challenge you to make him proud with the decisions you are making. Act every day as if your dad is about to walk back in the door to be reunited with your family forever. Wouldn’t you want him to catch you on your best day with your best grades?

I can only imagine how traumatizing it was to see your dad taken from your dinner table. When those memories surface, I want to challenge you to stay. Don’t walk out of class. You can’t outrun the memory; it’s internal. You have to sit there and face Pain and show him you’re stronger. Channel that rage into becoming the smartest student and the fastest striker on the soccer team.

A student who has the courage to walk out of class has the strength he needs to stay and overcome.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Self

education, photography

Dear self,

Three goals today:

  1. Show up.
  2. Teach the objective.
  3. Be nice. Do not yell or cry.

You will get through this day. You will not worry about tomorrow or the next day or the next day. You will not give up on yourself or your students. They deserve to be taught by an adult who respects them and does not abandon them in a difficult time.

Half of the battle is showing up. Get out of bed, and get going.

Never, never, never quit.

Dear Irma

education, photography

Dear Irma,

Thank you for helping me set up my classroom before school this morning. I enjoyed our conversation and am honored that you consider me a big sister.

I have an idea! Would you like to start staying after school with me on Wednesdays to talk about the changes that are going on at home? I know we didn’t have a lot of time this morning to talk about your parents’ divorce, and I want to make sure you have a safe place to process the important things that are going on in your life outside of school.

I am so thankful that you are in my class this year. You are such a joy to teach. Looking forward to Wednesday, “little sis!”

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear M’adri

education, photography

Dear M’adri,

I am so sorry about your loss. I know how close you were with your grandfather, and in the brief time I got to know him from the carpool line, I always enjoyed his kind spirit and warm smile. My thoughts are with your family in this difficult time.

I know you are worried about missing work while you’re gone. I have attached the assignments you will miss to this letter. Part of your homework is to write an acrostic poem with the letters of your name. I made an example for you below. Feel free to use any of the words I chose for you or to change them.

M’ADRI – an acrostic poem

Mature – a leader, a reader, this scholar sets the bar. Her sensibility and hard work will get her far.

Athletic – She’s the school’s goalie, and one of only three, 6th grade ladies to make the final team.

Dyslexic – Owning her challenges like taunts from a rival, this scholar defies the odds of reading and writing survival. The experts say she will be reluctant to read, while she ignores their predictions and volunteers to lead. For her, it might be more difficult and take more time, but this inspiring student loves to make her poetry rhyme.

Resilient – Tough is her middle name; determination is her game. All she does is win, because she never gives up or gives in.

Intelligent – Admired by her peers for her book knowledge, no one doubts this scholar is on the path to college.

I hope you feel encouraged, because every word in this poem is true. I’m here for you when you return to school, and in the mean time, you have my phone number if you want to talk.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Keenan

education, photography

Dear Keenan,

When you pretend to be what you are not, you become what you pretend to be. You are not a kid who doesn’t care about school. Unfortunately, when you played around on the reading diagnostic, you earned a score so low that you qualified for the Read 180 program. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great program, but you don’t need it.

In your attempt to convince your classmates that you’re cool, you took the easy route: playing dumb. Because of this, you will continue to attend Read 180 instead of staying in my classroom for morning advisory with the boys you are so eager to impress. Shaun tried his best on that reading diagnostic, and he scored above grade level. That’s not just cool, that’s admirable. He’s a leader for the right reasons. You could be too.

This program will reassess your reading level as you take weekly tests. I am challenging you to beat Shaun’s reading level by January. I dare you to be the best reader and leader the 6th grade has seen this year.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

P.S. – you should check out Walter Dean Myers. He has several books that I think you would enjoy reading. Start with Scorpions, and if you like it, try Monster next. Both books are in my classroom library.