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’ve decided to write 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

Dear K, (Student Letter #5)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 5th post in the series.

Dear K,

This letter is a few weeks overdue. I apologize.

We had some really enjoyable and unforgettable interactions this year, K. I don’t know where else to start this letter but by commenting on your insatiable curiosity. I mean, you are questioning machine. I love this. I swear, every time we talked or you wrote a Friday Letter, there was always something new and imaginative on your mind. And your hunger for knowledge was equaled by your thirst for answers. Whenever an open question lingered too long in your mind, you got antsy. You needed answers so bad that it made me feel guilty for being so appreciative of good questions. More often than not, you found the answers you sought. This passion for learning was exciting for me to be around.

We talked about so much this year. Like, SO much. Most of it was pretty random — based on whatever you woke up thinking about. A few times this year, though, we landed on the topic of formal schooling. You have strong, unwavering feelings about it and I loved going down this path with you.

You shared that, in your experiences, schools work to deteriorate the hearts and minds of young people. You mentioned that there is little creativity in classrooms these days. That “learning” is never the goal. Instead, over the course of their time in school, students just get better at satisfying the needs and wants of their teachers. Students are just jumping through hoops; students follow rigid essay structures and memorize stale formulas to determine x, but are never asked to find themselves. The school system strips away individuality and replaces it with conformity. Characterized by many as a “model” student, you offered yourself up as an example of this epidemic.

When we did talk about things like this, no lie, I forgot that you are as young as you are. You’re so wise.

Looking back, it’s these sorts of conversations that stand out. But it’s because of a very different conversation that I’m going to remember you for the rest of my career.

You know the one I’m talking about. It was the second-to-last Monday of the year and after reading your letter the previous Friday, I pulled you out of the library and we went to the lab. I knew there was a lot that you needed to talk about. I told you to spill the beans.

You proceeded to open some deep wounds. You shared a pain that you kept hidden for two years. Choosing to dress up your struggle as positivity, you had been out of your comfort zone for way too long. Outside of your parents, you hadn’t told anyone about these feelings. You were hurting. You were confused. You cried.

Though you always seem to find answers to your uncertainties, this was one instance where you were at a loss. And I wasn’t going to pretend like I had the answer. That was beside the point. You indirectly called out and I needed to be there for you…just like you had been there for me all year with your thought-provoking conversations. You needed to be heard. You needed a shoulder.

The more we talked, the more I felt the gravity of the situation. And, looking inward, the more I understood how much I overlooked you. I saw the side of you that you so eloquently displayed for the rest of the school — and I blindly accepted it. Given your depth of character and thought, I should have known better. But I failed to look below the surface. And with our constant stream of communication, I had so many opportunities. You wrote to me every week. We talked at length at least twice a week. As an unofficial mentor, I cannot help but say that I could have been better at recognizing your needs. I could have been better attending to your pain. You will never blame me, but I have to own this — at least partially.

Although we were the only two voices in the lab that Monday during 4th period, I heard so many others. They were my current students, your peers. They were also my former students. And their voices were loud. They were telling me that if you, K, a “model” student, a student who thrived in AP classes, a student that volunteered for leadership positions, a student that elevated my thinking, a student who served as role model for many, could keep so much pain suppressed for so long…then I needed to open my eyes. I was missing something. And it was a big something.

What were my other, less-vocal students telling me that I wasn’t hearing? What about the other students that I know well? How well do I even know them? What about my former students? How many of them went unheard despite spending hours and hours in my class? How did I let their pain go unnoticed?

This realization gave me pause. The walls collapsed on me, the rug pulled out from under my comfortable, privileged feet. I resorted to whispering my responses to you because my breath came up short. We both teared up. I was shook.

After our talk, you couldn’t go to another class. You spent the next period in the nurse’s office, then you called home and your dad picked you up.

I tried to follow up with you over the next several days, but I got the feeling that you didn’t want to talk about it. While polite as ever, your vulnerability made you shy away from me. If I’m honest, this bothered me because I know burying all this pain is part of the reason why you crashed. I didn’t have anything explicit that I wanted to say to you, I just wanted to check in. Send some good vibes your way. But I couldn’t force it. The year finished with us never again mentioning our talk in the lab.

Here, right now, in this letter that you’ll probably never read, I want you to know that I’m never, ever going to forget you or your story. Thanks to your courage in dealing with your discomfort and sharing this battle with me, I’m going to work even harder to uncover the needs of my students. I’m going to fight to be there for them — even if this means that I’m only able to reach only 1 additional student next year or 2 the year after that. The risk is too great.

In my own quiet way, in the coming years I am going to be thinking of you and wishing you well — wherever your journey may take you. I plan on anonymously passing on your experiences to other teachers and students with the hopes of inspiring us to be more mindful of each other’s presence. I learned so much from you.

I need us to stay in touch. Hang in there.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. I told you this already, but I deeply respect the relationship that you have with your dad. You talked about him so much in our talks and letters. I only hope that one day I can have a bond with my daughter that resembles the one that you two share.

Dear H, (Student Letter #4)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 4th post in the series.

Dear H,

Yesterday afternoon, after school, as everyone tripped over themselves in a mad dash out the building for Memorial Day weekend, I quietly sat down to read my Friday Letters. Before penning any of my replies, I glanced through all of the letters, noting who decided to write this week. There were about 10 letters. I saw yours, and looking forward to reading it, placed it on the bottom of the stack.

After replying to all of the others, I finally got to your letter. It was written on a full sheet of paper, which was unusual for you, and it had a pretty traditional fold — halved three times. You started the letter with a brief response to my letter last week and thanked me for playing some good music during class. Then you grabbed me.

You were upset. You have written a Friday Letter every week since the beginning of the school year and you were upset that, because the year was coming to end, you would soon no longer be able to write them. You also mentioned that you have been felt seen this year. Not as a student, but as a person. You said that you appreciated my untraditional approach to teaching and how I work hard to get to know and support my students. You were bothered that in a month I would no longer be your teacher. There was more, but you know that already.

Before even finishing, I stopped. Feeling a surge of emotion preparing to swallow me whole, I looked up. Hoping to steady my thoughts, my eyes found the window and I focused on the balcony of a high-rise building in the distance. My mind couldn’t help but race through the challenges I’ve faced this year in reaching my students. Several key moments surfaced, along with several students — including you.

Through some stackable moments, I’ve gained so much perspective during the 2018-19 school year. I’ve openly shared this with y’all during class, but through my conversations with y’all I’ve learned to perceive my students so much more deeply than in the past. Heck, I perceive myself way differently, too. Mostly, though, I’ve been able to acknowledge and welcome the emotional side of teaching and learning, a side that the system says can’t and shouldn’t exist because our intellect should always be front and center.

But to hell with the system.

I’ve found myself attached to y’all in ways that are unlike anything I’ve known before. I’m bound to y’all through the human spirit, through love. A parental sort of love, one that extends beyond the Do Nows, uniforms, and exams. And this has changed everything. Like no other time in my career, I consciously deliver my authentic, flawed, sensative self to y’all each day. And I’m getting the same thing in return.

I’m so damn proud to be your teacher.

You should know that with this increased closeness has come earnest self-doubt and questions. And they cut deep. Mostly, I’m unsure about whether I’m in the right. Like, what purpose am I serving? Are my energies hitting the target? Am I too ambitious? Do I initiate conversations that are too aggressive, too forward? Should I be more practical, just like so many of the other stolid teachers that I feel so distant from? Should I play it safe and just teach? Does my personal responsibility to y’all even matter? Am I fighting a losing battle? Can I even make a difference, especially when there are so many factors that are outside of my sphere of influence? Despite all of the hope that I pour into room 227, my glass often seems empty.

I’m rambling. Sorry. My point is that, despite my haphazard uncertainty, your letter gave me faith that I’m fighting the good fight. You nudged me away from practicality. You assured me that my efforts to be an agent of change — to work passionately to understand and mentor y’all far beyond your abilities to create exponential models — have not been trivial. In short, your letter was so important to me. I needed it more than you know.

I did manage to finish reading your letter and write my response, but not without a couple deep breaths. Thank you for being so kind. Thank you for the inspiration. You have been a wonderful student this year, but an even better human. Know that I’m a significantly better teacher — and person — because of you.

Talk soon,

Mr. P

Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P