Ah, damn it.
Are you serious? I thought we were done with this teacher shit.
Didn’t you like set your classroom on fire and run away to New York or something?
And I don’t mean the students I just sent to the Dean’s office for the millionth time.
I mean the feels.
They’re back with a vengeance and a lot of tear-stained tissues.
We are quickly approaching my one-year quit-iversary of being a high school teacher and boy it’s been a crazy 365ish days! Do you smell something burning? Oh, it’s my pants? My pants are on fire because that’s just a perfect metaphor for my insane lifestyle right now?
Great. Glad we’re all on the same page.
On this particular (and currently post-work and pantsless) evening, I am having trouble focusing. I spent the afternoon nannying with the world’s goofiest boys as always. But when I returned home I had only one thing on my mind: writing.
But what shall I write tonight? Will it be what’s behind door number 1, an episode of my new podcast that I need to finish by next week or I will look like a fool in front of my very first guest?
Will it be door number 2, a few hundred words of my 3rd memoir that I believe will be the key to unearthing myself from my seasonal depression?
How about door number 3, an article I decided to write yesterday for McSweeney’s on my inability to hold down jobs as a barista?
Or maybe even door number 4, a few minutes of stand up comedy related to the incidents leading to door number 3?
Just as I begin to open door number 1, I decide I really should clip my fingernails…
But then there was the matter of a second dinner and engaging in a glass of wine session with my roommate proved to be of utmost necessity.
And then I had to check my email.
And then I had to Google a few things really quick for no apparent reason other than to convince a private investigator in the future that I am a complete sociopath.
And then I absolutely needed to check my Instagram.
Now before I lose you, this is where shit gets interesting.
See, because there was a tiny little notification in the corner of my Insta informing me that somebody had left me a message. How exciting! Maybe it’s one of those cute guys I’ve been not-so-secretly cyber-stalking for the past few months…
UhhhhhhNOPE it’s a former student.
Now, this former student is a very special former student to me. A student who I spent many after schools with, typing away into a miniature Chromebook as she talked at top speeds, trying desperately to capture her genius. This was how we wrote her papers. Me at the keyboard and her getting her thoughts into the air as quickly as possible before they left us both in the dust.
I fucking love this student.
Of all the students to hear from at this hour, I am NOT mad about this one popping into my little inbox.
Not only was she always in that front row ready to listen to whatever ridiculous thing that came out of my mouth every single day, but she actually heard me. She heard me and she understood me.
And when I learned that she was struggling with a neurological disorder I was all over that shit. I was on the phone with Mom consistently, pestering her other teachers about letting her take her tests orally instead of on a scantron, I mean I'm pretty convinced I'd hide a body for this young lady, okay.
About a year ago I revealed my social media accounts to her and some of my favorite students in the wake of the news that I was quitting. I’m not entirely sure why I did it, other than wanting to be that weird teacher who keeps tabs on their kids from time to time to make sure they’re not drinking from red solo cups or dating shitty people. Maybe I really did just want the followers, who the hell knows.
I’m young and hip and annoying so it makes sense.
Every few months I get an email, Facebook message, or Snapchat from a kiddo. The majority of them are innocent and not weird. Aside from a kiddo that called me cute (after seeing a picture of 16-year-old me LOL) and a few daily Snapchat bombardments with just the word “STREAKS” on them which seemed excessive and strange, we’re all good with this whole former student-teacher social media game.
I won’t run into any of them at the grocery store or the gym anytime soon and I’m sure if I end up settling back down in Colorado someday they’ll have long forgotten about lil’ old me and the windowless classroom we once shared all those years ago.
So here she is, my sweet, sweet girl.
And what does she have to say this evening? It’s not a text, or a random picture of her dog (although that is encouraged) but rather two pictures of a handwritten letter from a notebook.
“Hey I just found this and I never gave it to you because I never finished it and I’m sorry for the handwriting…lol”
Hold on to yer butts, folks, cuz you bout to shed some serious tears…
The letter reads:
September 27, 2016
I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I understand that can be really hard and I’m really sorry you went through all of that. I’m sorry the response you got wasn’t respectful or caring. I have so much respect for you and what you’ve gone through I wish the vibe and open-mindedness was here in the class more. I see how much you care and wanna help these kids. You have such a big heart and I can see that! The way you are about us is unbelievable. You deserve so much from life and I hope you get that. It’s not fair that your emotions aren’t being reacted to or are taken into thought. I want you to know I hear everything you’re saying! I’m so happy to say I have a teacher that I connect so much with and you didn’t even know it. We have the same passion and visions for the school and just life in general. You can see the beauty of life as I do. I aspire to be like you and keep hope for change. Lately with everything going on it’s been really hard to keep that but your words have started a spark a light back inside me and I just wanna tell you that you are making a change and with everything you’ve been going and still trying to get pieces of you back. I have so so so much respect for you. Thank you for your letter! It really meant a lot to see that someone cared when I had nothing from anyone and was losing hope and strength. You reminded me that I’ve always been a fighter and whatever is going on won’t impact me the way it has been. I want my life back and I will get it back. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do but I won’t let it get a hold of me and change who I am. You’ve been helping me in so many ways without even trying. You are so important to a lot of people and I appreciate you. I love the way [you] meditate, your style, the little things you like ̶ *
Now if you can’t see your screen properly because the tears are flowing so heavily it’s practically Niagra Falls in this shit…YES, SHE REALLY SAID THESE WORDS AND YES, THE WALLS OF MY UTERUS ARE SHEDDING MAKING IT 20 BILLION TIMES WORSE.
She wrote them actually. Which is a big deal considering all those modifications we made to her History papers. She wrote the words on a piece of paper during what I can only tell you was one of the most terrifying and life-changing weeks of my life (alright second only to brain surgery).
It was actually the very week I first had the thought to move to New York City.
Now is that some cosmic shit or what?
I never saw the letter then, you see because that wouldn’t have been nearly as cool (although I still would have bawled my eyes out like I did just now).
Instead she’s sending me this NOW, days after losing a job, feeling a little bit sorry for myself, and around the same time frame that I remember last year was filled with summer anticipation, fear, and a fuck-ton of phone calls to parents telling them that their child was failing and needed to get their shit together like three semesters ago.
This unbelievably sweet letter comes at a time when I’ve started to settle into a certain lifestyle here in New York that I enjoy, but I’m also mourning the loss of the one I left behind. And most of all, mourning the loss of all the kids those two years who made me feel like I was a person who mattered.
Not some face in a crowded subway to be squeezed past or just another name on the lineup at a comedy show to be quickly crossed out at the end of my set, but a person who fucking counts.
It’s a feeling we so rarely talk about when we talk about work or success or joy or happiness.
It’s a feeling I want to replicate for the rest of my god damn life.
But I was suffocating.
My classroom had no windows. I was literally gasping for oxygen every single day for two whole years.
In that amount of time, I’d had more panic-induced mental breakdowns in the teacher’s lounge and in front of 5th period than I cared to remember. And that was just it, I didn’t want to remember.
The day she wrote that letter I don’t think I’d showered in days and my eyes were probably still puffy from crying over my recent tough break up. I was at my lowest low when this KID decided to open her notebook and tell me that I was real and that I mattered to her and to many others.
What had I said that day to deserve this little love letter? What ‘story’ was she talking about?
You know what, I honestly have no clue.
I can’t remember.
My guess is something brain-related. A story about maneuvering a wheelchair or learning how to do 3rd-grade math problems in rehab perhaps? Or something less recent? A story about being scared I’d lose my dad when he got into a car accident behind our house when I was in high school? Maybe I’d really fallen off the wagon and told the entire class that I’d just ended the best relationship I’d ever had in the most heartbreaking way possible…
What in the fuck came out of my mouth that day and how did it have the power to possess her to write such touching and honest words?
I’ll never know.
And I don’t have to.
What I do know is that I’m still a teacher.
Try as I might to lock that part of myself in my parent’s storage unit back in Colorado, I am still here.
Teaching and sharing and encouraging like I always have.
Making stupid jokes and telling people not to give up even when every fiber of their being is telling them to abandon all hope.
That’s my job.
And a year ago I thought I’d hung up the hall pass for good. I thought I was running away. I emptied the entire contents of my classroom into my car and then into that storage unit and shut the door tightly behind me, hoping to never look back for fear of confronting my deepest and darkest insecurities.
The little voice in my head that whispered, “You couldn’t hack it as a teacher. You weren’t tough enough.”
The opposite is actually the truth. Not only was I tough enough, but I was SO tough that I had to quit so that I could give everyone a god damn breather from how intense I was.
I’m like fucking Rocky Balboa before he’s all old and shit.
So what am I doing now you ask?
I’m actually still teaching.
Yes, I literally teach comedy writing classes on the Upper West Side on Monday nights, but I actually teach every day of the year.
I teach when I get on a stage and share a story.
I teach when I write my books.
I teach when I encourage a new friend to keep doing comedy even though it’s really fucking hard.
I teach when I tell people about my life.
I teach when I blog.
I teach when I podcast.
I teach the 4-year-old to ask more questions and the 2-year-old to tell me when he shits his diaper instead of just letting it sit there and making me look like the World’s Worst Nanny at the play place.
Just because I’m not suffocating in a public school classroom 80 hours a week, 10 months out of the year on slave wages doesn’t make me any less of a teacher.
I’m actually an even better teacher now that I’ve left that environment. The proof is in the handwritten letters. This is not an outlier. There are at least 200 letters much like this one tucked away just waiting for my blubbery eyes to discover; some back in the storage unit and about 50 stacked up on my nightstand right now.
And on my worst New York days, I turn to these letters and I remember who I am.
I am a teacher. And I matter.
Now pull out your damn headphones and let’s get to work.
*Student gave permission to publish this letter.