Most of the time, teaching in the US is one of those thankless jobs where everyone pretends to respect you, but the prevailing cultural attitude is one of derision and disrespect. I’ve written about that side of it a lot.
But sometimes there’s the other side of it.
On Thursday, the last day of school, in the final moments of one of my classes, a student, Ethan (not his real name), slipped a sealed envelope addressed to me onto my desk as I was talking to a colleague, and then quickly scuttled out of the room.
Ethan’s one of those kids who is super quiet, but a smart kid. He’s always been respectful, and we’ve only occasionally talked outside of lessons or when he needed something explained. A ton of my energy in that class went to trying to keep the peace; it was a very difficult class to teach thanks to behavioral issues–my 48 year old, nearly seven foot tall and very large instructional aide had to leave class often to rein in his anger, and he often asked me how I can cope with that level of disrespect. So it’s a hard room to deal with.
Anyway, during fourth period, I had a chance to read Ethan’s note. Here’s what it said:
Hey Mr. Johnston! I know you probably couldn’t care about this stupid, arrogant letter from me to you so I won’t make it long, you’ll probably just tear it up or throw it away anyways, but I just wanted to tell you that I really really appreciate what you did and what you taught us, especially me, throughout this tough year, and I’m sorry for it being tough, for the both of us. But you helped me a lot through this year, and even though I didn’t, I want to let you know that I felt like I could tell you anything.
I’m choking up a little while I write this, because you’re the hardest teacher to say goodbye to, even though we didn’t talk to each other a lot. I want to thank you for making my first year in public school so memorable and valuable to me! I appreciate what you did and what you do so so much Mr. Johnston! You taught me a lot and not just in the English academic field but in life.
You are the best English teacher and I wish with all my heart I can be your T.A. someday. I don’t want to say goodbye but hopefully I’ll see you around next year. I hope we can be friends someday! 😀
Oh, Ethan. That note is going into my desk drawer–the one at home, not in the classroom–and whenever I need to remember why I am still teaching in these days of slashed budgets, disrespectful classes, and right-wing hatred of what we do, I’m going to pull that letter out, along with a few others like it I’ve received over the years, and I’m going to read it.
And “Ethan,” just in case you find this post: If you’d said all this to my face, here’s what I would have told you:
Thank you. That was one of the nicest notes I’ve ever gotten. Know that you are one of the kids in that class that I looked forward to seeing every day. Your quiet, stoic demeanor in a class full of (let’s call it like it is) idiotic posturing was a breath of fresh air, and Mr. McLaren (the instructional aide) and I talked often about how you were one of the good ones.
If you ever find room in your schedule to be a TA, you will be more than welcome in my classroom. For that matter, kid, you stop in any time if you need anything. Even if you just want to say hi at lunch, or talk about things that are bugging you, you’ll always be welcome.
And despite what you wrote on the other side of the note, you were NOT a bad student. You did your best, and it paid off: you earned a B in the class. Now work that hard in your other classes; I can see you’re having trouble. Come talk to me next year and I’ll help you out.