Dear R, (Student Letter #9)

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 ninth post in the series.

Dear R,

Hey. Long time, no talk. Kidding, of course — I just saw you yesterday, but it was fitting I write you. As one of the first students I developed a genuine connection with this year, you have been a delight to have in class. Your humble, unassuming nature was refreshing from the start. I remember that during the first week of school you had your head down and I pulled up next to you and asked if everything was alright. You assured me that you were fine, just tired. It was our first real interaction.

One day, a week or two after, you showed up late to class. I was standing outside the door. I’m not sure why, but I held up my arm in the doorway, not letting you pass, and asked you for the “password.” I wasn’t going to let you into the classroom until you figured it out. You guessed three or four times before you got it correct. We laughed. It was so random and fun that, although you arrived on time, I asked you for another password the next day. And the next. And the next. Our funny, made-up “passwords” soon developed into a quirky daily routine that was a needed high note for me just before our class began. Crazily enough, on days that I wasn’t at the door, you began holding yourself accountable to the password and not walking in until I walked over and confirmed that your password was correct. Hilarious.

As I write this, I’m also left appreciating your Friday Letters. They’ve been heartwarming. I’m not sure why you decided to write one out of the blue, but I’m glad you did. You even started numbering your letters, which was unique. Through them, I enjoyed reading about your indecisiveness, struggles with AP Euro, and trip to DR. I wish I could have seen your 80 year-old grandmother’s face during her not-so-surprise birthday party that you and your family threw her. How fun.

This is why, this week, given all my excitement around teaching you and getting to know you, hearing about your transfer was so defeating for me. From your letters, I knew you and your mom were considering it, but if it was going to happen, I didn’t think it would happen so fast. I thought it would have taken a few more weeks, at least. But after I made a light-hearted reference to something next week, you told me that you wouldn’t be here for it. I asked why. You said Friday (yesterday) would be your last day. Your transfer went through. The last day of the marking period was going to be your last day as my student.

The moment was sudden and far heavier than I would have expected. Shocked, I forgot about whatever it was we were discussing. The joy left my face. The news saddened the rest of my day and woefully disrupted what has been a wonderful school year. I was dumbfounded and frustrated.

After months of heartache teaching students I never saw, this wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to experience sincere teacher-student connection like ours and then have it ripped away from me after only six weeks. I paid my dues to remote learning. I’ve earned my right to bond with my students again. This all feels so wrong. Somewhere, the spirit of remote learning is laughing at me.

(Sidenote: It’s interesting how I have begun thinking about and referring to remote learning as if it’s a living thing that was here for while and then moved on. I find a strange comfort in this.)

In time, my distress over you transferring will pass, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll forget you. I won’t. You gave me the gift of renewal and revealed the beauty in new beginnings. In the wake of emptiness and counterfeit classrooms, you offered up kindness and connection. Without trying, you were my first proof that the humanity in teaching and learning has indeed returned. Truth is, you were the sign that I was longing for. You let me know that it’s OK to lean in again. Thank you.

I wish you the absolute best at your new school and beyond. Please stay in touch.


Will miss you and our passwords,
Mr. P


P.S. Thanks again for the tortoise. Ironically enough, it’s one of my favorite animals. How fitting. It’ll rest on my desk for a long time and remind me of you and the rebirth of my teaching this year.

P.P.S. I’m so glad I could give you the Token of Appreciation. I was waiting a long time to find the right person — and you were it. Appreciate you, R.

Dear S, (Student Letter #8)

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 eighth post in the series.

Dear S,

It’s been a while. Hope you’re doing well. We haven’t spoken in over five years and I’m not sure you even remember me. Maybe you do. We interacted a lot. You were in my Algebra 2 class. I think you were in both of my robotics electives, too. In fact, for two years, you were one of the leaders of the robotics club. The truth is, you knew more about robotics than me. And you were definitely more passionate about it.

While you may not remember me, I remember you. What I remember most about you is that you were one of the first students in my career who challenged me. Not in a bad or rude way, but in a way that made me question myself and my motives. It’s not like you pointed any of your words or actions directly at me. No, you were just insanely curious about the world and what you could do to better it. If anything, you were looking past me. Way past me. I saw the classroom, grades, lesson plans. You saw the world.

You were someone whose love of reading and books. (Looking back, I’m smile when I think how horrible you were about renewing your library books.) You read things that I would have never thought of picking up. Your interests were vast and varied. Somehow you were able to see the interconnectedness of it all.

What I really appreciated about you, S, was how your reading compelled you to seek out knowledge from those around you, like me. Now I never had any answers to your insistent questions, but you still sought them from me. I realized this back then and I realize it again right now: your questions uplifted me. They nagged at me that I should be doing more. Like I said before, you challenged me. You were assertive, creative, and chased down ideas with passion. You set your sails and harnessed the wind. I floated through my days and prayed I would reach the shore.

Though I was much taller than you, I often felt small whenever we spoke. Not all the time, just sometimes, like whenever your environmental and moral consciousness revealed itself to me. You had grand ideas. Most teenagers do (albeit about things not much bigger than themselves), and this was not shocking to me, but yours were far more grounded and tamed. For instance, while we were learning right triangle trig, your mind was focused on developing an app to help the homeless folks you walk past each morning on your way to school. While I was teaching the class about function transformations, you were rethinking our school’s recycling program. And while all the other students were worried about passing exams, you organized a hackathon at our school.

Sharing these moments with you helped me see that students are much bigger than the chairs and desks they inhabit. Their hearts and minds have ambitions that go far beyond my curriculum. Thank you for pursuing answers to your questions with me, although I probably did more to distract you from finding them than I did in helping you. Thank you for the inspiration.

For what it’s worth, I wonder how you’re faring these days. In the middle of dual pandemics, what are you thinking about? What are your passions? Where are you?

I wonder.


Remembering,
Mr. P

P.S. Thanks for all of your creative closings to your emails and Friday Letters. All these years later, I’m just now learning to appreciate these valedictions as a means of creative expression in ending a written correspondence. As the writer, they seem to leave a good taste in my mouth after I hit send…and I can only hope they do the same for the reader. All yours about cat advocacy still make me smile.

Dear Students, (Student Letter #7)

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 seventh post in the series

Note: While all of my previous letters were written to individual students, given the COVID-19 crisis, this one is written to all of my current students.

Dear Students,

We’re three weeks in, and this remote learning thing is beginning to settle in. The Zoom sessions, mounds of emails, and teaching from my bedroom have somehow developed into routines. It’s all still quite strange, but markedly less strange than what it once was.

I wonder how you all are feeling about it. It may be hard to judge with many other aspects of your young lives evolving at the same time. Your stories are vastly different now than they were a month ago. Many of you are still picking up the pieces. Your families have been hit hard. Illness has gripped your reality, you have lost loved ones. For some, parents. Sadly, it seems that every day I learn of another one of you who has been wounded by this vile and unmerciful pandemic. Even though I have lost both of my parents, I simply can’t understand your loss. Others have had guardians lose jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, yet are still required to log on and fulfill empty demands. And for those privileged enough to have not been directly touched by this virus, many of you have expressed a sap in energy and severe lack of motivation. Through extended bouts of isolation and nothing but more bad news arriving each day, you are feeling helpless, alone, and uncertain about your future.

For these reasons and many more, being your teacher right now is hard. I mean, seriously, what am I doing trying to teach you polynomial long division? Is that what is important right now? And why am I having you drudgingly scan and upload your work to Classroom every day? So I can feel like I’m assessing your math thinking? Why am I tyrannically and insensitively pushing deadlines? I have cut the curriculum in half, but why have I given you so many grades? Am I leading with lessons — or love? Why am I attempting to recreate our in-person learning experience? Don’t I see that this will never be possible? I’m staring at a green dot!

I’m sorry, I’m just confused. And I miss you…and our classroom. I’m worried about not doing right by you and your needs. Right now, I don’t think I am. I haven’t been as sensitive as I should be during this time and it’s getting to me. I was already apprehensive about where I saw teaching and learning headed before this virus threw a tarantula on our lives, and now that it has, I don’t know what the hell to think. It’s hijacked our way of life and forced us to exist only as screennames on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me.

Speaking of Zoom, you have to excuse me each day as I plead with you all to activate your camera and share your faces with me and the rest of the class. I get that you don’t often want to be seen at a time like this (especially you, 1st period), but I find seeing you awfully comforting. Noticing you sitting atop of your kitchen counter eating ramen starts a conversation. It gives me something to hitch my floating mind to. It makes you human again. You see, I used to be able to walk up to you at any time and create a moment out of thin air. I could ask you about the essay you’re working on in ELA, your new hamster, or how your mom is holding up at her new job. Now I don’t even get to hear each of you speak unless you do it on your own (maybe that should change?), let alone see you. Even if you’re having a crummy day, please know my day will always be better after seeing you. It’s all I have.

I want to strike the right balance of compassion and accountability, but instead, I’m being held hostage by a screen and a keyboard. There’s a pressure — both externally and internally — to make things as normal as possible for you. Well, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Putting those words in all caps — and this letter in general — is a self-imposed prick on my finger; a reminder of what’s important. Being aware of how ensconced I now am in remote learning is in itself a check for myself. With the school year now permanently severed and with us being detached for so long, I fear that the humanity that I tried so hard to solicit in our classroom is being drained out of me one Zoom session at a time. Gradually, over the last month, my settling into remote learning has pivoted my attention away from your struggles, hardships, and the state of flux that your lives have become. I’m getting comfortable staring at a green dot and it is getting scary. I apologize.

In lieu of that apology, I have nothing to offer you but my word that I will be more critical of how I serve you in the months ahead. I promise frequent non-academic check-ins and a greater emphasis on community and togetherness and less of a focus on the strictures of curriculum. I promise to remember that you are more than a green dot or screenname. I promise to do my best to lead with love, not lessons.

Sincerely Yours,
Mr. P

Dear K, (Student Letter #6)

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.

Dear K,

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.

Sincerely,

Mr. P