I thought I was a pretty good teacher until I started teaching 7th graders. Their love language was so foreign to me. Gone were everyday stories of home, the drawings, the accidental slip ups where they called you Mom. Gone were having all of the time in the world, vowing to get to something later because we could, all day field trips, class parties, and hugs at the end of the day as they went home. Now it was 45 minutes of teaching content. So many kids whose names I desperately tried to learn as quickly as I could. Very little family contact unless it was needed. One teacher among many, teaching a subject that many students had decided they didn’t really need in their life. The smell of failure was real, the mistakes were often, the sense of never being enough was as pervasive as the stacks of things to grade that followed me home.
I cried so much as a beginning middle school teacher.
I thought my second year as a 7th grade teacher would be my last. I decided to give it one more shot before I made a decision of what to do next. Because if I tried one more time then I surely would realize that I wasn’t cut out to be a middle school teacher. That the gap between the 10 year olds I used to teach and the now terrifying 12 year olds was so much more than just a few years. That I was not the teacher I thought I could be. That they deserved so much better than me.
And yet, that second year something quietly happened; I started to get my feet under me. I realized that I could share my worries about being a good enough teacher and I could ask them how to grow. I could be vulnerable and share the stories from my own life as we started to trust each other more with all that we were. I got their names down in less than a week by studying them every moment I had. I asked them over and over how I could be a better teacher for all of them. I took their advice, changed whenever I could and always kept a door open. In turn, they opened up, teaching me as much at times as I taught them, and together we grew to be a community that made me realize that perhaps 7th grade English was exactly where I needed to be for now. That behind the thorny facades, the eye rolls, the hurried explanations of how reading just wasn’t their thing, or how English was just too hard, there was love. There was respect. There was a quiet commitment to what we were trying to establish together. They showed up every day, so I did too.
At the end of that year, we once again ended with our This I Believe assignment. A moment of grace where kids chose to share beliefs that they fully believed in as a speech in our final days together. Where some kids chose to share pieces of themselves that made me hold my breath and tears run down my cheeks as they laid it all out for their classmates to see. As they proved to me that we had created exactly what I thought I would never be a part of again; a place that was safe. Where kids felt accepted. Where they could be whomever they were, and with us, together in those 45 minutes, they would be okay. It was never perfect, but for the most part it was ours, and that was something.
For years in my Passionate Learners keynote I have shared the story a child who chose this final speech to share something that he knew would potentially change how others saw him. How when he slid his computer in front of me to read his first draft, he didn’t tell me what to look for but instead sat back, crossed his arms and watched me in silence as I read. How his second paragraph made me gasp, my eyes well up, as I realized how he had chosen to share a part of himself, how he was not really looking for my editing skills, but for my protection and care with his words. How he was watching for my reaction to see how it would go. As I looked up, I only had one question, “How can I help?” And he told me, “You already have” and pointed to a small sign behind me.
And so when it came time to give his speech, he stood up there boldly sharing his story, asking us all to protect it, to protect him, to help him feel safe, to be true friends when he needed it the most. And the kids did, applauding at the end, some patting his shoulder, others writing compliments, a few wiping tears. Me, I cried, and recognized that in that moment there was no other classroom I would want to be in. That perhaps 7th graders had a space for me, just like I had for them.
And he went on to 8th graders, we passed in the hallways, sometimes stopping for a quick chat, a check in. I saw him last year at the high school, checking in when he passed me on a visit there. He had a big smile. He told me he was reading. That he was happy. But we weren’t in touch, he didn’t know how much his trust had meant to me. How much his faith in the community we shared changed me as a person. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
Tonight, we got the news that this child, this child with his big heart and smile and a bright future ahead, has died.
And for the second time with him, I gasped, and the tears came and I had to sit with the quiet realization that something that had never happened to me has now happened; we lost one of our kids. We lost one of our own. We lost him.
And so I write this through tears as a final goodbye and so long for now to this child who trusted me. To this child who trusted us. Who made our community more than I ever could have thought it would be. To this child, who may have been gone from our team for years, but still was one of our kids, will always be one of our kids.
To this kid, who more than once throughout the past years has reminded me of what it means to fight for kids. To fight for them to be their full selves in our classrooms even as others tell us their lives are against their religion, are immoral, are not natural. To this kid, who saw something in me I had not seen in myself at that time. To this kid who is now gone.
So while I find no peace in this moment, I will say that my life was made better because of his. That I will continue to carry his story with me. That his life will continue to matter in mine. Because this kid, the kids who was, will always be a part of me. A part of us. Whether he knew it or not, but I hope he did.
Five years ago, he wrote, “…everyone should feel wanted, cared for, and believed in by someone who isn’t in their family.” May we all have that. May we all have this kid in our lives, even if only for a brief time.
I send love out into the world to those who need it tonight.