A girl with doe eyes, auburn tendrils, cocoa brown skin, and a crisp white shirt nestled under acid-washed denim clothes spent her lunchtime in my classroom to finish her assignment. As I sipped on my third Coke and sifted through the mounds of ungraded papers accumulating from my medical leave, she announced her intent to run in next month’s high school pageant.
I expressed my excitement, thinking about the way her inner beauty effused through her demeanor. Who else could be the best choice to represent? As we continued talking, she stressed the importance of me attending the event. I marked my calendar with every intention of keeping my word.
When that day arrived, I reassured her that I was still coming. The bell rang and my ninth graders charged through the line of students attempting to exit the room. She glanced back and waved goodbye.
At the end of the day, the daily dance of fighting through my ninth graders’ wall of resistance exhausted my energies. Binders of assessment data cluttered my filing cabinet, reminding me of the onus of raising their reading scores by the end of the school year. I slumped in my chair and drank in the sight of my portrait that my husband painted of me in my first classroom twelve years ago.
I replayed the course of my first teaching year in my mind. In that sparse, southwest Orlando middle school, the young woman in that painting connected with her students and made the magic of learning happened. I contemplated on whether I‘d lost my teaching mojo. Defeated and depressed, I drove from school and retreated under the covers of my bed.
Some teachers scolded me in the lounge the next day as I came in for my midday caffeinated fuel. I found out that she dedicated her pageant speech to me. They recounted her words of admiration and respect for me as her role model. Her look of disappointment and hurt flooded her face and elicited sighs of sympathy. My colleagues expressed their desire to have one of their pupils honor them in such a way.
There was no excuse for not being there. Unable to forgive myself, I purchased a card and wrote an apology inside. She accepted it, but I felt like a rift had formed in our rapport. Not once did she question me about the reason for my absence.
Even though this incident occurred two years ago, the damage and guilt remained. By focusing on my failure to reach one group of students, I overlooked my power to influence just one.