After a long, arduous day of working-while-sick, after scolding my Honors kids for not studying the handout I'd given them yesterday, after experiencing complete exasperation with a student I've had for TWO YEARS who simply won't learn to put the comma INSIDE the quotation mark, after that one beauty-queen freshman girl who has been told a thousand times "NO DRINKS IN HERE!" spilled some nasty sticky Starbucks liquid sugar on the carpet of my classroom, after all that, at the end of the day, when I was counting the minutes until the final bell, just trying to hold on by my fingernails, I checked my email. In my inbox was a note with the subject line: Teacher Appreciation Day. It was from one of my freshman Honors students, and it began, "I know this is a day late, but oh well"—classic attitude for this kid. But he went on to say:
On the first day of school when I walked into your classroom, I was a bit petrified, but at the same time I was looking forward to it. I had good English teachers prior to you, and I was hoping that streak wouldn't end any time soon. I was right, and I'm very happy that I was. I'm glad I had the opportunity to get a teacher who's doing her job, and ensures that her students have fun in the process of doing so. Also, I'm glad I had a teacher who isn't afraid to cuss. That's pretty bada--, you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I won't have you as a teacher again. That sucks, but I definitely won't forget you anytime soon. I appreciate everything you've taught me this year, and it's an added bonus that you rarely give out homework. So thanks for being an amazing teacher, and I hope you have a great day.
Here's the thing: This boy has never given me any indication—not once all year—that he enjoyed my class. In fact, the opposite was true; given his saucy attitude in the few exchanges we had over the months, I was convinced he disliked me, my class and everything associated with it. That is, I was convinced until about a month ago. In a conversation with another student in which I was explaining to him how people who are hoping to fly under the radar, to go unnoticed because they are introverts or unhappy or afraid of having a secret about themselves found out, often lash out when approached. "It's a defense mechanism for self-preservation," I explained. And as soon as I said it, it brought to mind this student, this boy who had snarked back even in asking to use the restroom, and I definitely had a light bulb moment. I decided then and there to show him extra kindness but never to call on him in class again unless he volunteered. I can't emphasize this enough: We never know what people are going through. As Atticus told Scout, we need to climb inside the other guy's skin and walk around in it, something I've preached to my freshmen for a quarter of a century.
To say this note brought me to tears and turned my day around is an understatement. I've already printed out the email. It will go in my very special folder of very special student notes and cards. On those days in retirement when I question whether or not I really made a difference, I will pull it out and read it again.
One final note: I disavow any use of profane language in my classroom during the course of teaching a lesson. Ok, I might have said "badass" once or twice. That's not cussing, is it?