“Bitch,” she muttered just under her breath as she came abreast of me in the hallway, sure I could not quite hear her. The disdainful squeezing of her eyes said it all though.
I slowly moved away. I could feel her scowl on my back as I took my position by my open classroom door. I turned and greeted her with my usual handshake and cheery good morning. Her morning wasn’t good and she let me know that as she lazily sauntered past me to claim her seat. I would try again tomorrow. I think that each sunrise illuminates a chance to try again, a new day, a new world and that was the only tool I knew how to employ with her.
However much she wanted to, she didn’t deter me. As much as I believe in the promise of a new day, I also believe in teenagers. I believe in their power, their confusion, their bravado and their passion. I have been teaching high school for 24 years now — I am well past my own teenage angst, yet I live teenage every day. I can almost breathe in their fears and joys. They don’t scare me; rather they remind me that life is terribly beautiful and deeply fragile at the same time.
I knew that this young woman’s father had just been arrested for possession of cocaine and she was vainly attempting to pretend that her crazy life was normal. Her anger was a facade. She wasn’t aiming for me exactly; I was just the one closest. I continued to smile at her each day, to encourage her to submit her poetry (the only thing she thought she could do well) to our literary magazine. I worried about her each night and continued to demand that she participate each day. And I smiled.
Then one day, she didn’t show up at my classroom door. Of course, calls home went unanswered. I had a cell phone number and left as many messages as I could during the next several days. She did eventually return, even more sullen and withdrawn. She never spoke about what happened. She did manage to make it to graduation and then left my life to try and shape her own. I could do nothing more than watch her walk away under the dimming lights of our football field. The wilted crepe paper roses floated disconsolately in her wake.
Five years later, she appeared in my empty afternoon classroom. She held an inquisitive tow-headed toddler loosely on her jutting hip. She aimed her jaw at me in that familiar angry attitude and asked me if I remembered her.
“Amber!” I was delighted and moved toward her to shake her hand. She rearranged her little girl and embraced me in an awkward hug.
Slowly, she told me about her life. She’d moved away from our small town, gotten pregnant, married, and then quickly divorced. She and her daughter lived in California in a tiny trailer. She was working full time and attending community college at night. She lifted her chin, her face filled with pride and strength and then she apologized about the name calling and anger. She told me that she thought of my smile often when she was tired and wondered why I never wrote her off as so many others did.
I locked eyes with her and her adorable daughter and said, “This is exactly why not.” As she left that dusky afternoon, she offhandedly presented me a copy of a small journal published by her college. It contained two of her poems.
Teenagers matter. They may seem surly, disconnected or withdrawn, but I believe in them. They will eventually grow up. Their bravado probably won’t last, but how I treat them does. I believe in teenagers and there’s a framed poem hanging on the wall behind my desk just in case I ever forget to smile.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.