An Open Letter to My Teacher Nearing Retirement
Yesterday, I came to see you and discovered that you are now only teaching part-time. In the mornings, of course. You always have been an early bird; I remember coming to see you in your classroom way before school started and joking that in order to catch you, one had to get there at the crack of dawn. But I would come anyway, because being in the presence of those who uplift and encourage is always worth a sacrifice. The year was 1998. I was a Junior in high school and right in the middle of a really traumatic home environment. I know you already know this because I wrote you a letter a couple of years ago and explained it all to you. Nonetheless, I say it now because on the dawn of your cutting back hours as a teacher, I want you to remember what you’ve done and the kind of inspiration you have been–to me and to so many others. So, my home life was chaotic. School started in September; we didn’t have a home at all then. That’s when we rented a campsite at the KOA campgrounds off Briley and ended up staying for a month (without paying, too: miracles do exist). When we finally did scrape together enough money for an apartment, we didn’t stay long. Eventually, my grandparents pitched in and found us a small house near the school and rented it for us. They were going to pay our rent for a couple of months until my dad could get himself straightened out (again).
In the middle of this instability, there was more.
Whenever he had the opportunity, my dad hurt me. It is emotionally hard for me to say “abused” or “raped” but, that’s what it was. He would mind games with me. Everytime he was in the room with me, I was required to smile. It wasn’t a demand spoken out loud; it was phrased as more of a request or suggestion. But if I didn’t, I got “in trouble.” So I learned to smile in the middle of really, really bad things. Perhaps that is why Maelea—my latest character—so upset me. She was required to smile and “make men want” her too. The mind games involved in such a demand are astronomical. In fact, it wasn’t really so much the physical aspect of what was going on that hurt me so; it was the emotional mind-games. In his head, I was his girlfriend—that’s what he told the other inmates when he was in jail–but such an idea was impossible for me to conjure up so, in my mind, I was an awful, terrible kid getting in trouble. I don’t tell you all this to gain sympathy or pity. You already know what happened, and I know that. I’ve spent the last 9 years healing in wonderful ways from all of this. I can talk about it now without collapsing in a pile. In fact, I do talk about it, publicly, and I write about it all the time. The readers of the blog I maintain are probably sick of reading about it. But writing and speaking about it isn’t my way of remaining a victim–I loathe that sentence–rather, it is my way of using it to keep focused on the blessings I have been given. Someone once said, “The further back you look, the further ahead you can see.” By looking back at where I have been, and at the person I used to be, I am constantly reminded of how wonderful life is now and of how far I have come on a personal level. Readers who have read the books, especially The Character and Broken, tell me a lot that they are “impressed” because I said in the books what they “could never.” I am utterly convinced that despite all the sexuality we are exposed to via the media and television and movies, rape is still a disguised and often covered up crime. Its greatest tragedy is the way it utterly convinces its survivor that h/she is “dirty” and “shameful” because that belief permeates the survivor’s entire life, making it impossible to just go about her/his life. When you feel utterly powerless, when control is yanked away from you, you are forced to remember just how small you are, just how un-powerful, just how insignificant. In the blink of an eye, you can go from a human being to nothing more than a disposable animal. In order to get away from that, in order to rebuke those lies and learn to trust humanity again, you must be surrounded by someone who makes you think you have worth.
You were my teacher. That’s all. I never told you anything about my dad. I never asked you for help. You didn’t know. But you managed to make me believe I was important. Do you remember when you called me up to your desk? I was supposed to tell you what I didn’t understand about a grammar (loathe!) quiz I had failed. Instead, I said, ” I just can’t do grammar.” You replied, staring straight at me, “And you. The only reason you can’t do grammar is because you keep telling yourself you can’t and, quite frankly, Tiffini, I’m about tired of it.” I was humiliated. I was crushed. But, overnight, I started making As in grammar. Not just one, but one after another after another. You gave me an A at the end of the semester for it, even though I was really two points shy of an actual A, because you said, “Frankly, you deserve an A.” You weren’t the only good teacher I had that year…. you were one of three pivotal teachers who changed my life. But you were the one I honestly believed cared the most. My family moved out of the city at Christmastime with absolutely no forewarning. I wrote you a letter and told you I missed you and how wonderful I thought you were. I thanked you. I didn’t tell you about my dad, only that I was going to miss you and that I was sad. You took the time to write me back. Do you remember that? I do. I can still quote the letter. I sat on the couch, miles and miles away, shaking and crying as I read the letter in which you told me to “be strong” and that you wished you had been able to give me a hug before I left to show you “really do care about your welfare.” No one else had ever told me that. No one. And then…. do you remember when we came back to Nashville to visit? My dad was with me when I came up to see you. You were in the library and didn’t see me come in. When I put my hand on your shoulder and you turned to face me, a slow smile lit your whole face and you said quietly, “Wow.” In that moment, I believed you. I believed you were really and honestly glad to see me. You didn’t care that I was emotional. You didn’t care that I was dirty. You didn’t care about any of that. You were glad to see me. I don’t know when I have been given such a gift—before or since. You shook hands with my dad, but spent the time talking to me. I don’t really remember what we talked about, only that you were glad to see me.
I was lucky enough to move back to Nashville that summer and start school at McGavock again for my Senior year. Unfortunately, you only taught eleventh grade English, so I wasn’t able to have you as a teacher again. But I would come to school at the crack of dawn to see you, tell you to have a good day. Two days before graduation, the principal told me that I had to take seven tests in order to graduate because I had been homeschooled the last semester of my eleventh grade year. You were the one to make my English test. Instead of quizzing me on grammar, which you knew I hated, you asked me to write you an essay, which you knew I could pass. You meant for it to be easy for me. But it was the hardest the thing I have ever done. I sat in my room, trying to write you the best essay you had ever read in all your years as a teacher. Why? Because I wanted you to be proud of me. I passed all seven tests, plus the four AP tests. When I saw you in the hallway, the day before graduation, you said, “Well?” And I smiled and replied, “I passed.” You hugged me and replied, “Of course you did” and then you wrote the kindest, most generous college recommendation letter I could have dreamed of. I still have a copy of it.
Since then, I have come to see you every year. I bring you a copy of every book I write, and will continue to do so for as long as I write them (read: forever). Knowing that you were at McGavock brought me comfort. It was something I could count on, even when I could not count on anything else in the entire world. I’ve brought my girls to meet you; they know who you are, and that you are very special. When I learned yesterday that you are only teaching part-time, my heart dropped. I was immediately scared of the day I will go to McGavock to see you and bring you a book and be told that you have retired. You’ve been teaching for 39 years–you are definitely due a marvelous retirement, and I hope you enjoy the extra time. I hope you spend it with your twin daughters and the grandkids, too. You’ve devoted 39 years of your life to reaching teenagers. To teaching them, to inspiring them, to making them believe in a world that is better than what they know. To instilling hope for a better tomorrow. You’ve devoted 39 years to giving of yourself to teenagers who sometimes don’t appreciate the hard work and the sacrifices you’ve made every, single day in order to teach them how to write, how to read and how to think for themselves. But it’s more than that. You’ve devoted 39 years to turning the wide halls of McGavock into a safe haven for kids who do not feel safe anywhere else. It’s funny. McGavock had quite the reputation when I started. I was prepared to die there–literally!! I expected guns. I expected fights. I expected world-class drug operations going on. I expected bombs. I did not expect to feel safe, not with all the rumors I had heard about that place. But from the very first day, something magical happened. Acceptance. And then I was put in your class. Have you ever seen the movie, The Little Princess? In it, the two little girls are locked in a cold attic and told they will not get food the next day. But Sara, the princess, starts a game in which she and her friend imagine what they would like to eat. They imagine bananas and toast and a bona fide feast. They comfort themselves with a dream, then they go to sleep. When they wake up, their cold attic has been magically transformed into a paradise of sorts and waiting for them is a hot breakfast table, atop which sat everything they had imagined. That scene describes what your class and McGavock as a whole did for me. When I walked through those doors, I was transported to a place of beauty. And when I was at school, for the first time in my life, I felt truly safe.
I learned about direct objects in your class because you made me your target for an entire sixty minutes, making me answer any questions regarding direct objects. I was humiliated (again) but I learned what it was and I never forgot. There were fabulous discussions; I still remember discussing The Scarlett Letter and how you wouldn’t give an input. Instead, you would nod, bow your head and call on another person to offer input. We learned. We were engaged. We thrived. All because you weren’t simply teaching from a textbook; instead, you wanted to know who we were and cared enough to figure out how we best learned. You gave 110% and we walked out of your classroom confident, happy and thinking. You taught us but you also inspired us. I’m a teacher today, too. Not in a school setting, but I teach classes at church and I home school my daughters. And every time I stand before a group of kids, I think of you and hope to follow in your footsteps.
I know how deeply you value privacy. You hate having your picture taken and on your page of the school’s website, you write, “Instead of offering biographical information about myself, I’d rather use this page to say a few things about our English department.” All I really know about your life outside of school is that you wanted to be a baseball player once upon a time, and you have daughters who moved around a lot like me, and that you have devoted your life to teaching. That’s all. I go to lunch with Mrs. Waller every now and then; I received a Christmas card from her and sent one to her this year. I have her phone number and we communicate through the phone and through Facebook. But you…. you aren’t on Facebook. I don’t know your address. I leave you voice messages every now and then but you don’t reply back. I’m not sure why, exactly. My best guess is that you are just a really private person who would undoubtedly hate knowing I’m posting this for the whole world to see. Maybe that’s why I cried once the day was through and I started thinking about you. Maybe I was saddened to learn that within a year or two, you will be retired. Not because I’m not happy for you, because I am, but because I am so afraid of losing contact with you. Historically, I don’t handle not being able to say goodbyes well a’tall. I’m afraid of knowing that there is still someone who knew me when I was hurting the most and still believed in me. See, there aren’t many people, even today, who believe in me all that much. There aren’t many people I trust, or feel safe with. You are one of them, and the idea of losing the ability to communicate with you scares me. I know its ridiculous and so not accurate, but it nonetheless feels like someone else I admire and trust and care about is just going to disappear from my life.
Before I moved my Junior year, I gave you and Mrs. Waller engraved gold apples and a letter (naturally). When I visited Mrs. Waller, I saw she still has my prom picture and the gold apple on display in her home. I was immensely touched. You told me yours is in your office at home, where it is safe. The idea that you would keep makes me feel remembered and special. I like giving gifts. But the gifts I gave just simply don’t compare with the ones you’ve given me and all the others students whose lives you have touched. Students of your class remember you. We remember how you sat funny in a chair and how you kept the straw between your teeth all the time. You said it was the way you had stopped smoking. I remember your heavy sigh when I caught you unawares in the hallway and practically begged for a picture. I remember how you said, “And you! Frame this!” when you handed me a grammar test, which I somehow miraculously aced. I remember the feeling of pure pride when, as you called the names of those who had passed your class with an A, you said, “And the A I am most proud of, out of all my classes, Tiffini.” See, I worked hard, Stackhouse, because I was inspired to do so. I worked hard because you motivated me. I worked hard because you gave me a reason to do so. You believed in me when I did not believe in myself—and sometimes that’s all it takes to inspire hope in the hopeless.
I don’t know when you are going to retire. I’ve sent you this letter to your e-mail account. I highly doubt you’ll respond back, simply because you never do. And that’s okay. I’m still going to e-mail you. I’m still going to invite you to every book signing I ever have. And, somehow or another, I’ll find a way to get the books to you. Not because you must have them. Not because you may expect them. But because I’m trying to return a massive gift, a gift much greater than books, a gift only an exceptional teacher can give. And even if I’m wrong…. even if you disappear from my world like Dr. Estes managed to do (PLEASE don’t do that!) … I will never, ever forget. I will never forget the lessons learned—the grammar lessons, the literature discussions or the awe-inspiring belief in myself brought about by your unselfishly giving a little extra time and attention when you did not have to. I know you don’t need my praise but you have really done an exceptional job. Not only as a teacher but also as a mentor and as a friend.
May your Christmas be bright, warm and joyful and when you come back in the New Year to crowded hallways full of kids who don’t always take the time to tell you how much you mean to them, may you remember me. May this letter and the books and the times I’ve come to see you represent all the lives you have impacted, all the minds you have influenced and all the hearts you have uplifted. Part of me admittedly selfishly hopes you teach for another 39 years but most of me hopes you stop now so that you are able to enjoy all the things you maybe haven’t had time for yet for as long as you have given. Most of all, I hope you feel as special and as worthy as you’ve made all of us—your students—feel.