Often I think about the impact that a teacher makes on her classroom. I think I’ve written about it more than once.
It’s hard to express what happens to your heart as a teacher. What happens with every group of students that enters your classroom. About the joy and love that you feel for them. About the guilt that you may feel when you finally decide that you may need to take a step back and try something else.
As a freshman, I remember her sitting there in the back corner of the class, obviously troubled. Who was I to kid? They were all troubled in their own little ways. But that day, she seemed more out of tune than any other. Another of my students went to her and they talked in hushed whispers about whatever it was that was going on in her life. As class ended, I saw her place a razor blade in the other girl’s hand, taken from concealment in her pencil pouch. I didn’t embarass her with her obvious shame. I went and told the counselor. They committed her for a day or two, and when she came back, she thanked me. Thanked me for caring enough to say something, for making her parents notice, even just for a moment.
I was standing in the hallway, watching the traffic jam of students that spread like the tentacles of an amoeba. All of a sudden, she raced around the corner, tears in her eyes, and she looked at me and asked simply, “Can I please just have a hug?” I wrapped my arms around her, and she cried, never telling me what it was that had caused her tears. I didn’t need to know. And she didn’t need to talk about it. She just needed someone to hold her so that she didn’t feel so alone with her tears.
It was two years after she had graduated. She came back to visit, bright eyed and bushy tailed. She loved everything about the college she was attending. It had never been better. But then she stopped and looked at me seriously. “I don’t think I ever told you how glad I was to have you as a teacher. How much you helped me through that first year.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and I found my own composure cracking. “You may not have known it, but you were the best teacher I ever had.” I cried there in front of her, and she cried too, and we laughed through the tears at the rediculousness of it all.
He had graduated the year before. I hadn’t taught him in four years, but I remember his freshman year well. The one day when the girl said something to set him off. Anger flared in his eyes, this man trapped in a boy’s body. He yelled and railed against whatever invisible daemon he was fighting, fist meeting the metal of my filing cabinet one, two, three times, leaving knuckle dents that still grace its surface twelve years later. I was scared for him, scared for us. The year ended, and I never knew what had happened to him to make him so full of emotion. But talking with another teacher I learned that he was living in shelters, bouncing from one place to the next. His constant companions were rats and mice and hunger. He never knew where he was going to end up next or where his next meal would come from. I see his smiling face in my Facebook feed, a member of the military, all traces of that life seemingly gone from him, save for the small glint in his eye that speaks of things from that other time.
They run together sometimes, the stories that have come and go from the lips and fingers of my students. One student in jail because he murdered someone. Other students lost along the way. One shot at gunpoint. A few married with kids. Some still struggling to make ends meet. Others flourishing. And I know that maybe in some way, they all remember me just a little. I remember them. I may not remember a name, but a face and a story, that will always be there.
And so if I walk away from this classroom, find that choices have taken me someplace else, I will take those memories with me. A stack of drawings given freely. The Christmas picture of my class and me, hugging and smiling. The video of my seniors presenting songs and skits, some not appreciated nearly enough. And I will look at them. And I will smile. And I will try to remember, that I made a difference. Even if just for a moment.