*I wanted to write something in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, and here’s what happened. I dedicate it to my student, and to all of the teachers who carry their work – the seen and the unseen – home with them at night.*
When I was teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms, I lugged a heavy bag of books, lesson plans, and ungraded essays to my car every afternoon after school. And people noticed that bag. They couldn’t miss it, really. They would sigh or smile or shake their heads when they saw it, the evidence that my job was important, that my school day did not end at 3:00.
The books, the plans, the papers – those were conspicuous. Everyone saw them. But the invisible burden that I carried home as a teacher often weighed much more. The questions that haunted my quiet moments. The concerns that intruded when I lay down at night. The moments that replayed over and over again on the video reel in my mind. Had I done enough? Could I have done better? Were all of my students safe and warm and well-fed at night? Had I left any children behind that week? How could I be more and do more for my class in the future?
I remember one typical morning, now so many years ago. My classroom was abuzz with students, chirping greetings to one another, trading stories with loud voices and dramatic gestures before the first school bell rang. Teenagers surrounded my podium at the front of the room, sharing anecdotes with me while I mentally reviewed my plans for the day ahead.
“Mrs. Ware, I actually heard something about Edgar Allen Poe on The Simpsons last night! I’m not even kidding!”
“Mrs. Ware, I didn’t finish my homework, but, I swear, you will NEVER believe what happened!”
“Mrs. Ware, did you hear about the track meet yesterday? We did awesome!”
“Mrs. Ware, my mom is going to kill me if I don’t pass English! You have to help me!”
One by one, I addressed their concerns, and, one by one, they shuffled back to their seats, still chatting, organizing their papers before our day officially began.
And then the last girl, a quiet girl, a girl who normally avoided drawing attention to herself, was the only one left at the front of the room while her classmates talked and giggled in the background. I smiled warmly, wondering what had lured her from the safety of the periphery.
“How can I help you?” I asked her, but she seemed reluctant to answer, maybe a bit regretful, as if she had moved her pawn too quickly and now wished she could change course.
After a pause, finally, she spoke. “I . . . Mrs. Ware, I was going to tell you . . .”
And just before the words could overflow, she hesitated again. Her sweet face, staunchly loyal, kept her secrets – but her eyes betrayed her. There, pain twisted and danced in oily swirls. It was brazen, whirling, flashing, taunting, while her words took shape.
She summoned her courage and, softly but firmly, spoke the words that I did not expect: “Mrs. Ware, I have the same problem you do.”
I looked at her, and I thought about it, and I had absolutely no idea what she meant.
The front of the room was suddenly a bit less comfortable, the air a little harder to breath, because I could not respond to her until I understood what our problem was. She could tell that I was struggling to answer, and she was uncomfortable, too, so she rescued me, or maybe rescued us, by offering a lifeline. Words were not her favorite, but her eyes were still talking, and I needed help, so I followed them. I watched attentively as they descended slowly from my face – to my neck – to my shoulders – to my big, round orb of a belly, firm and heavy and eight months.
“I have the same problem you do,” she said.
And those words that had been hanging, suspended in the air, now smashed to the floor and shattered like glass. And my heart fell, bruised and broken, with them.
Because I had been caught off guard, at this time and in this place, with a classroom full of students and first period about to begin and a bachelor’s degree in English that did not prepare me for this moment. Because her pain stabbed me, and it hurt, and I felt for just that moment the fear coursing through her veins. Because I wanted to fix things for her, for all my students, that I knew I could not fix. Because I imagined that Hardship had been her companion for a while now – and that he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
And because my baby, the tiny acrobat inside me, had been a prayer, a dream, and a plan, but never “a problem.” Those words stung. And I thought about how both of us had sobbed over a pregnancy test, but our tears had sprung from very different wells.
And because I was reminded that academics only matter to humans if we first meet their most urgent needs – and that is daunting – because every day in every classroom there are students whose needs are great, and only some of them will share.
At school and in life, most moments pass, one by one, with little notice or consequence. At the end of the day, you know that seconds, minutes, and hours elapsed, but in the whirlwind of planning the seconds, minutes, and hours to come, what is over is often quickly brushed aside. But, like the fine threads of a spider’s web, certain moments entangle you. They cling to your skin, and you cannot easily shake them off. They will not leave you.
That one moment, when a student and I shared all of the joy and the sadness and the fears of being human, will never leave me. It remains crisp and vivid on the video reel in my mind and still visits me when I am quiet. What followed that moment, however, is cloudy. I remember that she talked. I remember that I listened. Time passed quickly. My family grew. The school year ended.
And I never saw her again.
I don’t know if she remembers that moment when our lives collided in such a personal way, but I hope that she understands, now that she is all grown up, how deeply I cared. I hope that she knows, whatever I may have said, that she mattered more to me than commas and semicolons and sentence fragments. I hope that she knows how much I appreciate that she invited me in, that she allowed me to view the world, and my own experiences, through a different lens; it was a defining moment for me, a moment that shaped me as a person and as a teacher.
Most of all, I hope that she is well, that she is loved, that she is happy – but I accept that I will never know. Over a thousand faces have passed through my classrooms across different schools and different states, and it is impossible to follow them all. I often think of those faces and wonder about the adults they have become. I wonder how they remember our years together, whether certain moments cling to them, too.
So many of my memories are a blur, but some moments refuse to leave me. And for those ones, the ones that cling, I am grateful.