Dear Soledad

education, photography

Dear Soledad,

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,

Ms. Jackson

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

From Catalena

educationDear Ms. Jackson,

Thank you for asking me yesterday I was ok. Thank you for talking to me yesterday. Thank you for taking the time from your day to talk to me and to just hear me out. I have never been that open and honest with anyone before, and for me to talk to you like that, I think it was better for me. Ms. Dunlap already talked to me earlier. I think all of this is going to help me, so thank you.

Dear Catalena

Dear Catalena,

Your parents’ divorce is not your fault. They are grown people with their own thoughts, feelings and reasons for walking away from this marriage.

I am so very sorry that your parents’ relationship is breaking up. That you have to hear them fight when you are trying to do your homework. That you eat dinner in your room now, with your door closed and your music playing, trying to pretend it isn’t happening.

Many aspects of your life feel out of your control right now, and in most ways, you’re right. You can’t keep your parents together. You can’t prevent them from fighting.

But you are not completely powerless.

You have control over your own thoughts, actions and reactions. You can choose to bottle all of these emotions inside and let your friendships, grades and family life suffer. Or, you can open up to trusted adults and friends, just as you did today, and talk about what’s going on.

Your parents love you. Don’t confuse their pain with the lie that they no longer care about your well-being. Much of your world is shifting, but their love for you is unchanged.

I am here for you in this transition, and I want to be as supportive as possible.

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