Fifteen years ago when I was hired to teach Language Arts at the local middle school, I didn’t have a classroom to call my own. Instead, I was the “roving” teacher, pushing an overflowing cartful of books from classroom to classroom during other teachers’ prep periods. Not exactly an ideal situation – and even less ideal when my class assignment right after lunch was in the chorus room. Picture this: twenty-eight seventh graders right after lunch, balancing in little wobbly lap desks arranged on three rows of risers with a grand piano between us.
I was looking for something – anything – to anchor us. One day, I opened up the newspaper to Jon Carroll, my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, and the headline over his column read “This Just In…Words Matter.”
Words matter. It struck a chord. I hung a poster on the classroom wall -words matter – and every day we used that as our theme. The words we read, the words we wrote, the words we spoke, took on a deeper meaning. The students’ sense of voice and purpose had been awakened through one simple phrase. Those two words unified us. Those two words changed us. The only thing is, it took a number of years for some of us to feel the impact of the change.
One of those seventh graders with a latent realization of the power of words was Mark. He had more energy than the rest of the class combined. Every day he came bounding into the room; he shouted out questions when the room was quiet, he responded to questions with inappropriate answers that made the rest of the class howl with laughter, and he did that incessantly. Whenever I would talk to him about his classroom behavior, he would promise to try to contain himself, but he just couldn’t seem to do it.
One Sunday, he and a friend broke into the classroom during the middle of the night. When the police arrived, they were sitting quietly, watching Big Time Wrestling on television. After a few day’s suspension, he was back, as boisterous as ever.
Towards the end of the year, in response to something we had read in class, the students were asked to write about an indelible moment in their lives. I was surprised to see Mark take out his notebook and get right to work. He wrote all period without once disrupting the rest of the class. The next day he handed me his notebook with his completed entry.
Mark wrote about losing his mother the year before. In his entry he recalled how when she was dying, she would pull him next to her on the couch where they would watch wrestling together. They didn’t talk, but just snuggled together in the glow of the television for long stretches of time, just the two of them.
Click. The world shifted. In that instant I got it.
All those conversations we had over his behavior. Second chances. Patience. Forgiveness. Understanding. A classroom that somehow felt safe and comfortable and homelike to a boy who was still reeling from the loss of his mother.
Mark was my student again as an eighth grader. His behavior wasn’t much improved, but when I looked at him, I saw the pain beneath his joking exterior. I saw who he was, what he had lost, and most importantly, who he could be. At the end of the year, I had my students do something that my mentor teacher had asked of her eighth graders – I gave each student a stamped envelope and had them write a letter to their future selves. I collected their sealed letters and put them away for a decade.
So I was startled when last year, out of the blue, I received an email from Mark. Here is a bit of what he wrote:
A few years ago I received a letter I had sent to my future self, courtesy of one of your classes. You had followed through and sent them to us ten years from when we wrote them. I got mine at a time in my life where I wasn’t sure if the path I was on was going to pay off or not, and I saw in my letter to myself that I wanted to be in sports writing. You couldn’t imagine how much that lifted me up and how recalling that in tough times has instantly picked me up.
I also wanted to thank you for being patient with me despite my constant troublemaking. I was lucky enough to snap out of that behavior early enough to where I never had those issues later in life like many of my friends did.
I responded right away and we have since done a lot of catching up. These days, Mark makes his living as a sports writer in Los Angeles. I am no longer a classroom teacher, but in my role at the district office I am in charge of an annual writing contest for high school students. In March, Mark took a bus here from southern California in order to serve as a writing judge for me. Four hundred miles to connect with his middle school teacher and maybe with a part of himself too. Four hundred miles to spend a day reading, volunteering his time to connect with young writers with stories of their own. Working with him that day, I was struck by his kindness, his insightful feedback to the teenage writers, and the seriousness with which he undertook the task.
Time and time again I have found that we teachers learn way more from our students than they do from us. And just as we know that sometimes our students don’t reap the benefits of our teaching until much later, the same can be said of us. Sometimes, we don’t see the influence that we have had on our students for years, if ever. I believe in you, I see you, I care – whether said out loud or spoken through our actions is a powerful, powerful message. Our words matter.
Reaching all students is not easy. Kids come to us with hurts and failures and attitudes. But teachers have power, incredible power to make a difference. It takes patience and persistence. When we take the time to get to know the people sitting in front of us (yes, even when there are 150 of them across the day), when we truly believe that the human connection is the most important thing we teach, amazing things can happen. Sometimes it just takes a little more time.