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 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 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 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 Shantel

education, photography

Dear Shantel,

You ACED your midterm! With one of the highest grades on the exam and an exemplary character growth report for the month of December, you have earned a place in my Hall of Fame for the first semester.

I remember greeting a sleepy-eyed, grumpy-faced Shantel for the first two months of school.

Me: “Good morning, Shantel!”

You: “Bad morning, Miss. Everything’s bad.”

Around October, when you decided you could trust me, our conversations started to sound more like:

Me: “Good morning, Shantel!”

You: “Morning, Mama. When you gonna adopt me already?”

While I’m not planning on adopting a 12-year-old anytime soon, you have adopted a better attitude, and I’m so proud to be your teacher.

Welcome to the hall of fame, my dear! I always knew you could do it.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Jalissa

education, photography

Dear Jalissa,

Are you safe and warm this Christmas Eve? I heard on the news that the shelters around South Dallas are especially full this week. I pray that you and your family have found a place to be together and that you are not hungry tonight.

It feels strange for me to wish you a Merry Christmas. So, I will wish you peace in the midst of uncertainty, pain and loss. I pray for a bed to sleep in, a warm meal to eat and a sense of security tonight. And most of all, I wish you a hopeful Christmas season.

Hold fast to the belief that one day you will have a place to call home again.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Marques

education, photography

Dear Marques,

Nothing but courage stands in the way of passing your midterm. You know the material. When I pose a question in class, your hand shoots up in the air, and that jolly grin I’ve come to know and love stretches across your face.

But I watch as a paper test is set in front of you – the same questions, multiple choice answers – and your confidence fades. Your test average in my class is a 42. If I could grade you on oral answers during my lesson, you would have an A average.

We’ve been working on strategies to deconstruct the test. You have the tools you need. All that’s left is for you to believe in yourself.

Breathe. Read the question. Cover up the answer choices. Write a response in your own words in the margins. Search the text for evidence to prove your answer. Then look at the multiple-choice options to pick the best of what they have provided.

Breathe again. You are smarter than the test. I believe in you! I need you to believe in you so that you can show yourself, your parents and your community how brilliant you are.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Tiana

education, photography

Dear Tiana,

You have matured from a reckless little girl into a fearless young woman. Channeling the same strength and passion that used to get you in trouble, you now act as a leader in the classroom and on the basketball court.

You are truly a remarkable woman and a joy to teach. I will be at your game this weekend, cheering you and the team on to victory.

With the incredible strides you are making athletically and academically, don’t let a strained relationship with LaKeysha take you back down the path you were once on. You are too smart, strong and sensible to let a little girl drama derail your progress this year.

LaKeysha is working through her own issues. I need you to stay in your lane. We only have one week of school until winter break. Your grades are improving, but we still have work to do. I would love to recommend that you stay on the basketball team, but I need to continue to see excellent character from you – in class, the hallway and during electives.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson

Dear Marcela

education, photography

Dear Marcela,

Teach me how to be brave.

I look to you when I start to feel overwhelmed by your classmates’ behaviors, and I admire your strength. The rest of the class might be in a state of chaos: talking, out of their seats, sleeping, or doing Lord-knows-what, but I always catch you leading from a place of courage and quiet confidence.

You must be frustrated. I can tell how badly you want to learn. I am exhausted, because I long to teach, but lately I’ve had to be more of a disciplinarian.

You are stronger than I am in so many ways. The class gets rowdy, and I fight the urge to cry, while I watch you just work harder. I start to yell, and I notice that you tap the shoulders of the students around you to bring them back to focus.

Thank you for being you in an environment where it would be very easy to conform.

It is brave to be a strong, intelligent young woman in middle school. While most of your classmates desperately seek to fit in, you are comfortable in your own skin. To know who you are and what you stand for is courageous.

I want to be you when I grow up.

All my love,

-Ms. Jackson