This I Believe

Michelle - Durham, North Carolina
Entered on May 9, 2007

“I’m still OK, I still can’t tell you where I am, and I still hate Shakespeare.” His tone goads me on from somewhere overseas. I know it was Turkey once, but since then he has been more vague in his description.

As a teacher in an inner-city school with all the requisite problems I often redefined the word success. Sometimes it meant keeping everyone awake for an hour…sometimes it meant avoiding injury. But now that the experience is nestled safely and securely in hindsight I find that some of the true successes I had there were the result of terrible advice.

I believe in the power of saying the wrong thing at the right time.

When Tasha wanted to drop out because her two year old started calling someone else “Mom,” I yelled at her.

“She’ll figure out who her mom is, and then when she’s 16 she’ll ask you why she can’t drop out like you did, Mom.” I hung on the last word and it connected…hard. Of course I quickly slunk back to familiar territory and told her all of those things I was supposed to, “You’re too smart to drop out,” but she still cried. I still felt terrible.

She graduated.

And in her speech she brought up that conversation. I hung my head and blushed madly as I remembered with shame a conversation that had gone terribly wrong.

But she remembered the story differently. She remembered someone who cared enough to yell at her. To be honest. She cried again and told me that conversation kept her in school. This time I cried with her.

That same year, Michael told me he wanted to go to college, an engineer he said. “What about the Army?” I asked, “Or the Navy?” Because this was before those planes had shattered our feelings of invulnerability and to me the G.I. Bill looked like the ticket out that so many of my students were looking for. I know it couldn’t have been completely on my advice, but when he showed up in my class a year and a half later in his dress uniform to say good-bye on his way to Turkey, I wanted desperately to take it back. I fought off the fatalistic parental thoughts that convince you that the worst is bound to happen. Instead I told him I’d been laid off, budget cuts and the like…

“What about the Army?” he asked, “Or the Navy?” My own words stung me. He laughed at my shocked expression before confiding, “It’s changed my life.” And it wasn’t until then that I noticed how his posture was different, his voice was more sure of itself. “They taught me how to swim!”

Sometimes just being there to say the wrong thing or give bad advice is worth more than the words—I’m still afraid for Michael and for Tasha and dozens of other students that I never felt I could do enough for. But I have redefined success as sometimes coming from words you wish you could take back—as long as you cared enough to listen and say them in the first place.