The Awkward Kid in the Back Row

We Can All Be Difference-Makers

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Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

If my school is ever on fire, I’ll be seen running out with a box under my arm. It’s a big metal tin that used to have cookies in it. It has “Good Stuff” written in black Sharpie on the lid, and it contains most of the letters, cards, Post-It notes, and drawings that kids have given me over the last twenty-five years. When I’m having a bad day, thinking about how peaceful it would be to just work at somewhere like Target, I get the box out from under the repository of random detritus that I throw in a file cabinet drawer. I pry the lid open and read until I feel better. It never takes long.

All of the notes and letters boil down to one theme: you mattered to me and made a difference. There’s the transgender kid who thanked me for remembering to use his preferred pronouns in class and his birth pronouns when talking to the parents who still stubbornly call him Michelle. There’s the Muslim student whom I wished a happy Eid in December of 2001, three months after the towers went down, a time when she was genuinely and justifiably afraid to wear her hijab in public. There’s the girl who ate lunch in my classroom every day for months because she had crippling anxiety and just couldn’t handle the noise of the school cafeteria.

As much as I get sentimental and mushy when I read my letters, I REALLY hate all of the “heartwarming” teacher-stories that make the rounds on social media. You know the ones I mean. They usually involve a teacher spending money or making some other kind of significant sacrifice for his or her students. Those tales are always aggravating because no teacher should have to dip into her own skinny wallet to pay for things that ought to be provided by a well-funded school system. Don’t misunderstand me; the teachers who do choose to martyr themselves are magnificent human beings. We just shouldn’t be in that position to begin with, just like doctors should not have to give away their services because people in our country have inadequate health care.

But there’s no financial cost to loving our students. Treating them with dignity and respect is free, and it should be easy. There is an emotional cost because kids can betray, hurt, or disappoint me, but I think the risk is always, ALWAYS, worth it. Teachers don’t make enough money to be motivated by much more than a desire to make the world a better place. We share a passion, a drive to be a part of kids’ lives and make a difference. That, despite the lack of respect for our profession which is reflected on our paychecks, is what makes it worth doing.

There’s the girl who was consistently told by classmates and even a teacher that she was “pretty for a black girl,” and blossomed when I told her as often as I could that she was a beautiful writer, a beautiful friend, and an absolutely gorgeous human being. There’s the obnoxious kid who was always in trouble whose dad I called to tell him that his kid wrote an essay in class that got a standing ovation from his classmates.

And there’s the very first note I ever received back in 1994, the last line of which I printed and framed. It’s become my call, my charge, my mantra: “Don’t ever forget the light you can bring to the awkward kid in the back row.”

We all have that power to shine and glow, even all the way back to the last row. Everyone can be someone’s hero. Someone’s safe place. We just have to decide to be it, to do it. That’s when the good stuff happens.

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I'm a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, writer of things, and native Floridian.

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