Dear Former Students…

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Dear J. & R.,

Let me start by saying how great it was to meet you again last evening! These unexpected get-reacquainted-opportunites come in fits and starts – not often, I mean, but last night twice! So let me thank M. for letting Hubby and me crash her intimate dinner party and having a few minutes while your orange chicken and creamed vegetables cooled to chat it up with you! Introductions were made and we, all strangers to each other excepting for M., were given a few moments to visit. Thanks, M.!

J., I remembered you right away! Your eyes are so memorable! “Memorable”. That was the word you used to describe me. “You were one of my more memorable teachers.” A little wrinkle formed in my visceral parts there where that sentence lodged. ‘Memorable’ can mean any number of things. Your eyes are memorable because they are beautiful – shapely with life and brilliance. How wonderful that you have made it this far into your nursing career! And congratulations on your engagement – your wedding is going to be memorable for all the most wonderful reasons!! Your future is cast bright. I’m so happy for you.

And when R. arrived and we discovered (dis-covered?  Perhaps uncovered?) the nature of our relationships then – R., how you confessed yourself to be such an ‘ass’ as a kid – did you use that term? You used some such term – and M. asked you, J., if you also were a little trouble-maker and you replied, “Oh no!  I was a good kid…” and you explained how you watched one or two “bad kids” try to manouver their way into disrupting the class and I “got them under control pretty darn fast”. And R., you grinned, looking down at your hands.  Then we remembered together how you ended up in my class in the first place – how you were looking, in your immaturity, for an easier road through school,  your love of hockey taking precedence over everything else. I remember it well. It saddens me to this day, that particular story in my early career.

Here’s what I want you to know, what I didn’t know I needed to say last evening, what wasn’t fully formed so I couldn’t make it into words then. I was teaching during R.’s story in a Transition Classroom – a room for students who didn’t fit anywhere in the school system – a place for them to continue their learning, to get another chance, to move forward against all odds. I had all kinds of students in there:  some on parole, one with Multiple Personality Disorder (is it still called that?  Forgive me if I’m outdated! It’s what we called it then.), a girl with Downs’, a boy literally tongue-tied since birth, girls working the streets, kids who’d been expelled from every other school in the system, kids with severe dyslexia. A patchwork quilt – a blanket I wrapped myself in, made of kids whose tattered lives were torn and thin, stitched together by the confines of the brick walls of that room. I loved them all. I felt a bit of passion for each one, a keen interest in their psychologies, in their secret lives, their hidden hopes and their despair. And R., you didn’t belong.

Your life, R., was a velvet cushion in comparison. You had parents who, as far as I could perceive, loved and supported your goals. You were going to play for the NHL. You were, what, 14? You had no idea what your future held. Nor did I, but I knew from my young age (I was what? 27? 28?) that you’d need more than sharp skates and a skilled stick. I saw a blonde boy with strong hands who lived in his body not in his head; a boy who wanted to move and feel alive and be muscled; a boy who hated desks and pencils and solitary efforts. You knew full well what you wanted but were hardly equipped to know how to get there. Or what you’d need once you got there. But back to my point: you didn’t belong in that room. You were loved; you had talents; you had an ambition; you were best suited for a regular classroom, with all the rigours of learning and responsibility that could be found there. And you resisted this last with all your little adolescent self.

I did not want you in my room, R. You didn’t belong in my quilt. Your fabric was too new, too strong, the fibers bound too tightly.  There was nothing frail about you. One strong square like new denim in the midst of my fragile blanket all made otherwise of much used materials. How could this work?   How could this not tear my other pieces apart? How could this benefit you? Shouldn’t iron sharpen iron and shouldn’t you be in with peers and challenges that would create a better, stronger you?

And, God bless your mother, she loved you fiercely! She loved your love of hockey. I believe she loved hockey as much as you! Can love of a sport be genetic? 🙂  What an advocate you had there. And she was my opponent in that rink. I confronted our principal at the time. I argued on your behalf and entirely against all you wished for. I contended that you were well able to play against a regular team in the mainstream league – that a regular class would serve you better than my Transition Classroom. I pointed out to your agent-mother that you would be labelled, that your grade 12 diploma may be compromised if you ended up in a stream of alternate education classes, that you needed challenges to overcome that will develop a character in you that is able to cope with long-term responsibility. I argued with you, R.  Do you remember? That you will need to read and write, that your math skills would help determine your negotiations and trades within the system, that contracts will be drawn up if you make your goals, that you will need to be able to advocate for yourself and to do that you need academic skills and advantages.

Principal + Mother + You vs Me.  Your team won and you were traded. I went home enraged and indignant on your behalf. I am so sorry.

You ended up in a desk in my room. On the outside you played the goon:  ready to fight, rebellious and utterly disdainful of all things academic. You dreamed hockey. You talked hockey. You acted hockey as though our classroom was a rink and I was the ref, calling your every foul. So, on an exterior basis, you appeared one of my kids – tough, angry, volatile. But you never were. They came hungry, tired, beat up; from gangs and nights with strange men and addictions and mental health issues … you had no idea.

It was my job to design individual programs for each student in my room – to cater to their learning needs, to create lessons that moved them step by teensy patient step through a series of skills that would benefit them most. I spent hours and hours with several of them, reviewing the sounds of the alphabet, figuring out what the little lines on the rulers meant, when to add and when to subtract and in which columns of a chequebook. Several snuck in dirty clothes in their backpacks which we secreted away to be laundered and returned before these same students disappeared like smoke after the bell to their dysfunctional lives. At my desk or in the counsellor’s office we met with psychiatrists and therapists to manage everything from the alternate personality who was determined to kill herself, to how to re-enter the school system after incarceration. But for you, R., I created a program as closely resembling the norm as I could. I designed assignments that meant you’d be on track to re-enter a mainstream classroom. I returned assignments to you to be revised and resubmitted because the quality wasn’t up to the standard which you were able to meet. I put you through all the rigours you were hoping to avoid. And when all the other students had to re-do assignments and you did also, you thought I was treating you like them, that you were one of the Transition Kids. But they were re-doing assignments at grade levels well below yours, assignments that were gentle enough to not create new tears in their fabric whereas yours were designed to test your strength.

Last evening you admitted that you wanted into that Transition Classroom so badly because “it was easier”. It was not easier, R. You only thought so.  Imagine, though, how much easier your life might have been if you had stayed the academic course, if you had fought the good fight and made your way through school as a regular student.  Imagine.

So I’m sorry. I happily learned last evening that you haven’t had a bad life, though it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. I’m sorry for that too. None of us wish to grow old with regrets and unfulfilled dreams. We all do the very best we can with the fabric we’ve been given. I’m glad to see you aren’t tattered and torn from the life you’ve lived, and the choices you’ve made. But R., remember, when your children come to you with wishes and hopes and demands that they are only children. They don’t know what they’ll need to get through a single season of games, let alone their whole life’s career in the rink. Give them challenges. Let them struggle against those things they wish to avoid. Allow them all the opportunities life provides to develop the strength of character needed to play through the entire span of life and not to be benched for lack of inner strength.

Memorable. R. and J., you thought perhaps that I was a little hard-assed, a little harsh, maybe; maybe a little rigid. Perhaps your memories of me and of that time are tinted with adolescent perspective. I felt, last evening, that I wanted to explain. I wanted to tell you that I saw more in you, that if I was memorable because of my hard edges it was because I was playing with heart but my opponents were strong and I had to use every trick in my playbook to move my team forward as best I knew how. I do know I made mistakes.  I didn’t achieve all I’d hoped. And practises were rough. I lost many games. But I played my best game at the time.

Regards,

A Memorable Teacher.

2 thoughts on “Dear Former Students…

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