I adore seeing your smiling face in the hallway every morning.
“Ms. Jackson!” you squeal as if it’s the first time you’ve seen me in months, rather than hours. “I can’t wait ‘til I’m in your class next year.”
Well. I have a secret. Can you keep it?
I’m not coming back next year.
“You are going to have the most amazing 6th grade reading teacher, my dear!”
How long is that line going to work before you realize that I’m not talking about myself? I dislike crafting these vague statements and lies of omission, but I’m not ready to let everyone know yet.
I will miss your smiling face and the opportunity to build relationships with the 107 other 5th grade students I won’t teach next year.
But I will not miss teaching. I will not miss these fluorescent lights, the crowded halls, this classroom.
I’m not cut out for this. I’m not the best person for this job. You deserve a teacher with more experience, grit, creativity, passion and disciplinary skills.
I truly, deeply, hope that you will have the best reading teacher in the world next year.
But she won’t be me.
All my love,
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,
I adore your sense of humor and spunk, but there is a time and a place to be serious and sincere as well. Today was one of those times.
“I will not teach liars and thieves! Get out!” the voice reverberated down the hallway to my classroom.
Mr. Bain’s door opened and closed rather loudly, and I was concerned. It was my planning period, so I walked into the hallway and noticed you standing outside of his room. Your upper lip, left cheek and uniform shirt were covered in a white powder.
“Did Mr. Bain ask you to leave the classroom?”
“Let’s try that again.”
“Why did he ask you to leave?”
You smiled, shuffled your feet and looked down at your shoelaces. A moment later, Mr. Bain opened his classroom door and dropped your binder on the floor. “He cannot come back into my classroom for at least a week!”
You shuffled your feet again.
“Terrance, did you take something from Mr. Bain?”
I walked across the hall and picked up your binder.
“Yeah – uh – I mean, yes. I did. I – ” you giggled slightly and looked up at me with that twinkle in your eyes, “I knewd he had a pack of those donuts he always eatin’. Those white, powdery donuts in that little package. He had one of those in the top drawer in his desk, so I just took ‘em.”
We sat down on the floor in my classroom.
“You just took them?”
“Well… I mean, I ate them. I had to ate them real fast because I was scared he was gonna turn around and catch me behind his desk, so I kinda got that powdery stuff everywhere.”
Handing you a paper towel to clean your face and shirt, I said, “ Terrance, you and I both know that it’s wrong to take food that doesn’t belong to you. Are you hungry? Did you eat breakfast this morning?”
“Naw Miss, I ate breakfast,” I just (giggle, giggle, giggle), “I just wanted to see his face when he knewd his snack was gone!”
I had you stay in my room for the remainder of that class period to learn a lesson about trustworthiness by picking up trash off the floor and cleaning out the student desks.
Just when I thought we were clear about the difference between times to be funny and occasions to be sincere, your classmates filed in my room for English Language Arts. I noticed that you stayed on task and finished your work before class ended, so I gave you the early-finisher activity: Write a card to a family member or teacher for Thanksgiving.
Yours said, “Dear Mr. Bain…”
While admittedly hilarious, this is not a heartfelt apology. For homework tonight, you will write a straightforward and sincere apology to Mr. Bain. Save the jokes for your standup routine, and save me a ticket. Let’s pass the sixth grade first, though, and then we can talk about your future plans for your comedy hour on television.
All my love,
So, you want to be a teacher when you grow up?
Why do you want to be a teacher?
A. I want a job that is rewarding and fulfilling.
B. I want to help people.
C. I want to make a lot of money.
D. I love children and want to make a difference in their lives.
If you chose answer C, you’re correct. I joke, I joke!
A. I want a job that is rewarding and fulfilling. Here’s the truth about being a teacher. It doesn’t always feel rewarding and fulfilling. In fact, most days it’s exhausting and frustrating. I cry more than I cheer.
B. I want to help people. While this sounds noble, I’ve realized that the most powerful thing I can do is to teach my students how to help themselves. Teachers whose main motivation is to help or fix other people end up thinking that they are superheroes. When I look around my classroom, I know without a doubt that the true heroes are the 11 and 12 year olds who are persevering with their academic and character development every day.
C. I want to make a lot of money. I’m hilarious, right? Tip – humor is key as a teacher. If you can’t laugh off the small things, you’ll probably become very, very grumpy.
D. I love children and want to make a difference in their lives. I learned quickly that my love and patience are limited. I have had to constantly remind myself that love is a choice, not an emotion. I want the very best for each and every child in my classroom, so even when I feel frustrated, I still choose to not give up on any of you. And then I have to ask myself, what does it mean to make a difference in someone’s life? Is that self-serving too? Am I teaching because I want to be remembered? Or am I teaching to give a child an opportunity she would not have had in a different classroom?
Let’s try this as an open-ended question: Why do you want to be a teacher?
Here’s my answer as an example:
I teach because I believe that every child can and will achieve on an absolute scale when given access to quality education and the support he or she needs to be successful. I believe that every life matters, kindness counts, and hard work and self-advocacy are essential life skills to be successful in school and in a career. I teach to open doors of possibility for students to walk confidently through on their own two feet.
Jasmeka, you have the strength and compassion inside you to be an excellent teacher one day. Ground yourself in the reasons why you want to teach so that when frustrating days happen, you stay steady for yourself and your students.
All my love,
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,
You are no one’s property. Go to the restroom, and scrub those filthy words off your arm.
I’m less concerned about the Sharpie; it will come off with of lots of soap and water. What worries me is the meaning behind the words, and what this says about how you think of yourself.
Love is not ownership, and you are not a possession to be had.
Tonight for homework, I’m assigning you an extra myth to read. Not as a punishment, but certainly as a lesson. Write a five-paragraph essay answering the following question: According to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, did Hades or Demeter love Persephone more? Is it more loving to cling tightly to someone or to let her go?
You have a 98 average in my class after Tuesday’s test. You are too smart to believe that you are an 11-year-old boy’s property. If you will not hold yourself to a high standard, I will.
All my love,
If you have something to say, say it loud and clear. Stand up and speak up for what you believe in. We are done with the cowardly comments huffed under your breath and the incessant whispers to your friends.
Let me be very straightforward. I’m not angry that you have been repeatedly murmuring the word “racist” in my classroom. I’m upset that you’re not saying it louder.
I want you to call out racism. Point a finger in its hideous face and say what you really think. We need voices that will bravely demand an explanation for actions that oppress and harm others. What we do not need is a kid who’s trying to raise a reaction in my classroom or get a high five from his best friend by whispering the word “racist” every time anyone says “black,” “brown, or “white” to describe someone’s skin color.
Don’t hide behind jokes and whispers. It’s time to grow up and become a young man who can articulate his thoughts and beliefs in a way that challenges and inspires others. Call out injustice and discrimination when you see it. And I hope you see it, because it is all around you.
Let’s call out the fact that due to years of oppression and lack of opportunity you, as a young Black man from Oak Cliff, have a much greater chance of going to prison than college. That sir, is a result of racism.
I want you to boldly talk about how angry it makes you feel that there is a racial divide in Dallas. You have every right to be mad, because you don’t have the same opportunities as a 12-year-old student growing up in North Dallas.
Discuss the fact that I am one of four White people you have met in your entire life. It’s ok to say that I’m White. It’s not racist to acknowledge the color of my skin. I’m not offended. But I am angry.
I am angry that you would rather waste your breath being the funny guy than say those same words with conviction and purpose. Honor your heritage. Live up to the greatness that you come from. Be a young man who fights injustice and oppression, not a boy who makes empty objections and distracting jokes.
If you see, hear or experience racist language or actions, call it out. All other distracting and silly side comments are not welcome in my classroom.
All my love,