To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I write anonymous letters to some of my current and former students. This is the sixth post in the series.
You’re the only student from my first year of teaching that I remember. We met during first period of the first day of school. You arrived 15 minutes late. You knocked, and, amped up as I was on first-day jitters and a teaching license with ink that was still wet, I cheerily skipped over to the door. I opened it and you opened my world.
You stood there plainly, your stance rigid and unflinching. You were 16, but your six-foot-two, chiseled frame allotted you at least an extra decade of life. With a full beard and tight cornrows running straight past your neck, you looked weathered but strong. I would have sworn you had a 9-to-5 and a family. I dared myself to ask your name. Your voice was thick, yet strikingly casual. Receding cowardly into my whiteness, with stereotypes of young black men filling my innermost thoughts, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Despite myself, I had a class to teach. I had a career to jumpstart. I welcomed you.
That was over 14 years ago. I don’t remember anything else about that first day — except that I’m pretty sure I was wearing an oversized shirt. Hell, my entire first year was a blur. Our encounter in the doorway of room 524 is a lonely memory that I cherish like a photograph of my youth. It stands out and, when I return to it, I can’t help but smile.
After we met, I spent the next year as your teacher and another seeing you in and around school. Despite functioning in a troubled school that did little to bring out the best in you, I’d like to think that our relationship blossomed. You were strong in math. We both had our struggles, you facing raging inequities that kept you one step behind and me trying to figure out what the hell I was doing, but whenever our paths crossed, we joked and talked like we were above it all. You were as cool as a cucumber. As a young teacher with an urge to prove himself, I envied your relatable nature.
This is random, but I remember that you had a nephew who attended our school. Y’all were a year apart in age and this constantly threw my mind for a loop! I’m still confused about how it’s possible.
K, I can’t end this without thanking you for the dumb amount of respect you extended to me. Whether in school or on the J train, it was always “Yoooo, P!”, a dap or a pound, and a charismatic smile to brighten my day. Anytime we spoke, I felt cooler and more relaxed immediately after. You gave this lanky, naive, overeager guy from Ohio a chance, and I’m thankful for you anchoring my career with such a strong bond. I still have a long way to go, but know that I am far removed from the cowardly, unjust, and colorblind stereotype that I thrust upon you in the doorway of room 524 all those years ago. Neither of us knew it at the time, but our relationship helped me interrogate myself, own my privilege, and be a better man, teacher, and human.
I don’t know why you were 15 minutes late that day, but I’m glad for it.
Last thing. You may not remember this, but one day, after months of noticing that you were always the last student to leave the room, I asked you about it. You moved conscientiously — especially at the end of class — and I was curious. We were alone after the bell, me standing by the door, you gathering your things at your desk. After all these years, I’ve never forgotten what you told me: Mr. P, I’m always the last to leave, but I’m gonna be the first to make it.
I had deep respect for the symmetry, grace, and decisiveness of your sentiment then — and I still do. Each year, I have one or two students who, like you, are the last to leave the classroom. They linger, at odds with the rest of the hurried bodies jostling for position at the door, and allow their army of thoughts to properly transition away from the moment. I want you to know that I share always what you said to me with them.
I don’t know where life has taken you, K, but I hope that you’ve made it.