On Teachers, Vulnerability, & the Lessons That Save Our Lives
There were eight of us in Ms. Graham’s class. There was a mysticism surrounding GEMS—a highly selective, seniors-only seminar. Eight gifted eighteen year olds, raw and invincible, sat around four small tables jammed together to create a jagged little Algonquin.
We’d all had glimpses of Ms. Graham in gifted education before. She was the kind of teacher who didn’t encourage you to think outside the box: She burned the box with glee, did a dance around the pyre, looked at you indignantly with a smile in her eyes and said, “What will you do without your box now?” She grew up in the Virgin Islands, small in stature but strong. A backbone that carried the rest of her body, except for the feet that planted her. A smile that consumed half of her small head, but eyes that peered through gigantic wire frames and straight into you.
She didn’t say hello. She dropped into the chair like a boulder thudding into some primordial dust. And she simply said, “Who are you? What experiences have shaped you? Who do you want to be?”
Silence from the over-achievers. Clearly, she was a miracle worker.
“My three-year-old sister died on Christmas day after a floor platform in our house collapsed. My twenty-one-year-old sister died of breast cancer. My father committed suicide. After a separation with my husband, he came home after he was diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. I took care of him until he passed away.
The room started to spin, each of us drawn into the magnetism of trauma, but it ceased with the wave of her hand.
“But these things are not who I am. I am the happiest person I know. They have shaped me—they are not me. Because they are not who I chose to be, nor who I am…here.”
She thudded her chest with her fist.
“This is your first writing assignment. Who are you. What experiences have shaped you. And who would you like to be.”
And we were released.
That night, the five of us who were close friends assembled in an AOL instant messenger chatroom. (Because, yes, there were still chat rooms and away messages). And I said, “We’re gathered here today, peers, to decide if we’re really going to do this. I’m not doing it alone. Are we going big or going home?”
“Balls to the wall.”
We all stayed up till 2 AM clacking away at our little desktop computers in living rooms, pouring our hearts out in the vicinity of family, vulnerability unseen. And the next day in class, you could practically see the five our hearts in our throats.
Ms. Graham pulled out a deck of cards. “Whoever pulls the highest card goes first.”
I pull. The King of Hearts. Well, here we go.
“Balls to the wall, right?” And my five pact members nod.
I poured out how singing made me feel connected to God, but disassociated from myself. How people turned me into a symbol, a china doll, a performing monkey. About the alcoholism that rippled through my family and the circle of trauma that felt unbreakable, the tethers that yanked my parents out of their loving natures and back into feral reactivity. The teachers who’d abused and used. But also the brothers who gave me life and meaning. The collection of souls in our living room, the safe space we’d created for every teenager in our district.
I barreled through it and didn’t look up, didn’t breathe. Tears streamed but I just had to get through, get through, get through. I was embarrassed. How silly and paltry these things sounded next to this incredible Amazon woman leading our class. How childish I must sound. How whiny.
But it ends. And I look up. And there are rivers of tears. Rivers. And she says, “I have lived in America for 15 years. I have felt alone, as if Americans must not know pain. They hide it and put it behind plastic masks I can’t afford and no one will tell me where to buy them. But this…this.”
And she just cries. And the next essay comes, and everyone cries. And two students talk about losing their virginity to each other, for the first time after a year of shame and not speaking. The other three students tear their essays up like sackcloth and just speak and speak. And Ms. Graham stands and paces.
“How did this happen? I’ve given this prompt for ten years. And this never happens.”
The group was forged in salt and smoke that day (which sounds hammy, to quote Game of Thrones, and I guess it was, a little). But Ms. Graham felt a fierce protectiveness of our real selves. After months of knowing my writing, she came into class and slammed an educational journal on my desk.
“Miss Sarah. Do you know what I read today in the Virigina Journal of Education.”
“I read an article about a man who teaches Shakespeare to 5th graders. In it, he went on and on about his methods for getting children excited about Shakespeare and language and theater…”
“But I said to myself, I know this voice. I know this writing. And I know this man. He’s the sponsor of that club Sarah runs for those 5th graders.”
Panic. Her glare. You can see the rage coming up from the roots of her feet. But it does not feel dangerous or unsafe. It is as if I am suddenly standing behind a great force field, but I am deeply ashamed at the same time.
“You listen to me. Because I don’t even want to hear you deny it. People are going to try to steal your words and your light and call it their own. You cannot let them. You have to fight. This was not generous. This was plagiarism.”
“But I agreed to it—I offered to!”
“He plagiarized your soul and you let him.”
I stared at the floor. “I did not think teachers with tenure would want to listen to an eighteen-year-old.”
“Then you are a brilliant little fool. And I am telling you right now to wise up. Don’t you ever do this again. Your professors in college will try. Your bosses will try. The world will try to take what’s yours and make it theirs. They will try to own you. Don’t you ever do this again. You must promise me. Don’t you dare let that happen.”
I felt the tears of relief brim and leak, but inside, there a little torch in my chest. A little tiny warrior woman who looked a lot like Ms. Graham, dancing around the pyre of my heart, saying, “Fuck yes.”
I nodded, knowing I would break that promise a hundred times, but I would never stop trying. And I tethered my heart to this perfect woman.
So much so that, four years later, she was with me when I stood in that cul de sac in the rain in December. I couldn’t focus on the policeman’s face as he told me he was terribly sorry, but there’d been a horrible incident. Couldn’t recognize that it was me who was screaming, couldn’t figure out who was screaming. Couldn’t feel the ground or catch my breath.
But there, next to that pyre in my heart, was Ms. Graham, incanting, “This will shape you, but it is not you. This will not define you. Who are you? Who do you want to be?”
And then, as I sat in the police interrogation room, in the white fuzz of silence, begging Jim to tell me he was somewhere, anywhere,—her voice, instead. “The world will try to take what’s yours and make it theirs. They will try to own you. Don’t you dare let that happen. You must promise me.”