I’ll never forget the first time I met you; but how could I? Some meetings change your life forever. Some people change your life forever, and — well — you were one of those people.
And our first meeting was one of those meetings.
Of course, I didn’t know it then. When I walked into your classroom, on the first day of sophomore year, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew you taught English literature — my absolute favorite subject — and I was certain the year would bring me more Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Plath, and Dickinson than my classical little heart could handle, but I didn’t expect to find an empathetic ear, a confidant, one of my greatest cheerleaders, and a lifelong friend.
I didn’t think I would come to know you as a second mom.
It was third period, and shortly after 9 AM, when you took roll. I sat toward the back of the room, attempting to blend in and hide. I was shy and embarrassed; intimidated by my peers. But you wouldn’t let me hide, or anyone for that matter; instead, you had us do “introductions.” You had us speak up and out and share something about ourselves — though I couldn’t tell you now what it was you asked or what I said.
After “getting to know us all” you jumped in front of the classroom and explained what we could expect from the coming year. You were enthusiastic and animated, and after pacing for a few moments, you pulled an empty desk forward and sat on it. You told us who — and what — we would be reading, you explained how we would be graded, and then you told us your teaching philosophy: i.e. you told us you wouldn’t be our teacher. You weren’t a teacher. Instead, you were a facilitator and that, you noted, was an important distinction.
According to you, a teacher is someone who instructs — who gives direction and, for lack of a better word, teaches — but a facilitator is someone who encourages discussion. Who actively engages their “class” in ways beyond memorization and repetition. You would teach us, of course, but there was more to it than that: you wanted to be someone who would guide our educational journey and our lives. You wanted to be more than a series of essay questions and quizzes. You wanted to be more than a red pen and a few comments on lined, college-rule paper. And you were.
Oh, how you were.
You see, while you pushed our minds and forced us to look a literature in a new light — to analyze poetry in new and different ways — you also forced us to look at our lives in a new way. You forced us to look at our futures in a new way, and to question our roles in it. For me, that meant writing angsty teenage poetry, and helping to edit our school’s literary magazine. You encouraged me to write for the high school paper, and to pursue English in college even when I told you I wanted to be a psychologist. Even when, after high school, I told you I was training to become a nurse.
Because you saw talent in me.
You saw my potential — and all of your students’ — and you knew exactly what I was capable of. I was “going to make it,” you said. I was destined to be a writer.
And you were right.
You talked openly and honestly about life. About the trials, and tribulations many of us faced as young adults. About the hardships many of us endured outside your classroom. And you used literature as a means of initiating those conversations — which is to say that, in your classroom, nothing was taboo. Not drugs or death, mental illness, abuse, or suicide.
You always kept your eyes on us in the halls, your ears open and listening to us in the lunchroom, and you made sure we knew you were “accessible.” If any of your students ever needed to talk, you were there.
The door to your classroom could always be opened.
And that is when you impacted me most. Not during third period, but before it and after it. In the minutes and moments when you weren’t on the clock. In fact, the most important thing you did for me had nothing to do with English literature or writing or my future career; it had to do with my life. Because in my poetry, you saw pain. You knew something was wrong, and so you asked me if I was OK. You told me it was OK not to be OK, and you let me you were there.
If I ever wanted to talk, you would listen.
And that was new. That was different. That was what I needed, when I was broken and depressed. That was what I needed, when I was 15 and insecure. And before long, I found myself headed to school early every morning. I found myself sitting in your classroom every day, long after the bell rang. And I stayed in touch — we stayed in touch — years after graduation.
Fourteen years, to be exact.
So thank you for being more than “just a teacher.” Thank you for being more than “just a friend.” Thank you for being believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Thank you for listening to me, even when what I said could have sounded trite and trivial. Even when what I said was insignificant and nothing more than adolescent emotions, and another high school meltdown. And thank you for reaching out and asking me if I was OK, even when you didn’t have to. Even when it wasn’t part of your job. Because your words gave me faith. That action gave me hope. And you ended up saving my life.