December 20, 2008
This piece was named a “Best of Holidailies 2008.” Thank you!
I participate in an e-mail discussion list populated by editors, copywriters, journalists, translators, and several retired and active teachers. Recently, someone asked for suggestions about an appropriate gift for a teacher who had been especially inspiring and effective for her son, who had had some personal problems to deal with. A gift card at Barnes & Noble or a terrific restaurant? A subscription to a literary magazine or a professional journal?
I wrote my reply and sent it, and the next time I checked my mail I discovered that three other teachers had suggested exactly the same thing I did: Write the teacher a letter and send a copy to the principal. One of the respondents said that he treasures a simple note on lined paper tucked into a Christmas card that he knows his troubled student had to take extraordinary measures to obtain. The boy left school without graduating, but my friend still has the card and still thinks of that student from time to time.
I have a story like that.
We’ll call her Tara. She was new to our school, and as I recall, she enrolled a few weeks after the fall semester began. She was quiet, kept to herself, did her work and paid attention in class but never participated aloud. Her eyes were sad and she rarely smiled, and it was clear that she was carrying personal burdens that I could only guess at. She and I didn’t have much personal interaction. In fact, she didn’t seem to have much interaction with anyone, except one boy who appeared to make a special effort to chat her up. She was almost always the first one into the classroom (I think the class she had before mine met nearby) and I’d greet her and maybe say something conversational, hoping to indicate that she was in a friendly place
I am a person who has some trouble with organization and details. I can be scattered and easily distracted, especially when it comes to managing the threads of multiple projects. In those days I had six classes and about 150 students. I required four critical papers each marking period, so there was a major effort about every two weeks for the students to write the papers and turn them in and for me to evaluate them and get them returned. I tried to stagger the due dates, but even so, it was imperative that papers be turned in on time (not just for my benefit but as part of teaching youngsters to meet deadlines) and filed in the class folder so I could keep everything in order.
I could be, well, persnickety about getting those papers in. “Remember the Emerson and Thoreau papers are due on Monday. I don’t care of the POTUS or the Prince of Wales is staying at your house this weekend, or you have to help your grandmother bake cookies or participate in the Olympic trials.” And it was most disconcerting if someone turned a paper in apart from the other members of his class. “Don’t just hand it to me in the hallway or leave it on my desk. Get my attention, say your name and your class period, and with your own eyes watch me put it into the proper folder.” This helped keep to a minimum those cases where someone claimed the paper had been turned in but it was not in evidence.
It was my pattern in the morning to open my classroom and then go up to the office for my mail. I’d then stop by the faculty room to put away my lunch, greet my friends, check with a colleague that we were on the same page for the class we taught together.
One day in the spring of that year, during a week that my classes would be turning in papers about F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, I arrived back at my classroom to find a paper laid carefully across my roll book and anchored with my blue plush Emily Chickinson figure. A sticky note in her handwriting gave Tara’s name, her class period, and ”put it in the yellow folder.”
I stepped across the hall to her homeroom to ask her why she’d turned this paper in early. (If she were going to be absent for a trip or a doctor appointment that day I could give her some preliminary information sheets about the next topic we’d be studying.) She wasn’t there, and when her classmates filed in, with their papers, later that day she was not among them.
I never saw her again. No one did. We came to understand that she had run away from an untenable living situation. Evidently, she had come into the building that morning for the sole purpose of handing in that paper. Someone had seen her hop out of a car, run into my room (at the end of the hallway beside an entrance door), and then run out again, to be driven away. Her guidance counselor surmised that this action was a measure of the esteem in which she held me. “She respected you and wanted you to think well of her.”
We were quickly talking about her in the past tense. Because she was eighteen, her leaving was treated as the act of an adult. A few weeks later, the boy who had been paying attention to her approached me after class.
“Do you know anything about Tara? Is she coming back?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you anything about that,” I said, trying to sound casual. We both knew what my answer was code for.
“Well,” he said. “The prom is coming up, and I wanted to ask her. I really liked her a lot and I miss her. But if she’s not going to be around, I’d like to ask someone else, but if she came back, then I’d be obligated to the other girl.”
“I think, Andy, you should probably ask that other girl.”
He did, and I watched them at the prom, thinking about what an extraordinary young man he was and hoping the lovely young woman he was with did not know she was his second choice. And I wondered where Tara was and if she had found some peace.
I still wonder that. Over these ten years since I left the classroom I’ve discarded a lot of stuff — lesson plans I’ll never use again, articles about authors I’ll never need to refer to again. But I still have Tara’s paper. I keep it in a keepsake box with other personal notes and letters from the youngsters I’ve taught. They are mostly thank-you notes for graduation gifts. Tara’s paper belongs among them.
A year ago, I wrote about being called a cruel mother because I never taught Lynn that santa Clause was real.
Two years ago, I wrote about contacting my college rommates for the first time in many years.
Three years ago, I wrote about my trip to Emily Dickinson Camp in July of 2005.
Four years ago, I wrote about my post-party depression.
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