An Open Letter to My Teacher
I believe teachers, for better or worse, can be equally influential to children as their parents. They’ve even been known to mitigate the impact of a disappointing guardian. I’ve been out of school for quite a while now. I’m considerably older than you must have been when I was in your class, but still depend daily on lessons gleaned from a handful of teachers, not just the academics, but the messages I picked up along the way. I’d say for me, you rank #2 for influence. In hindsight, I’ve often thought of how you and I really misunderstood each other. I’d like to take this opportunity to unpack some of that.
One of my favorite stories to tell is about the time I told you my dad sold drugs, and my favorite song was Cocaine, by Eric Clapton. A few weeks later, I came to school with a giant lump on my head, and proudly demonstrated for you that I’d learned to spell “concussion”. Not too long after that, I told you about how my mom’s car could “really fly”.
In each one of those instances, you dutifully notified the proper authorities! I suppose you did the right thing. You seemed very concerned. It obviously all got worked out amongst the grownups, but since my seven-year-old self was not privy to that conversation, I’d like to give you my own explanation.
* My dad worked at a distributing company for which he delivered OTC drugs to the stores on his route and put them on the shelves. That is what I sometimes got to help him with. Said dad was also in a band that regularly practiced in the spare bedroom my little brother would soon come to occupy. That is how the powerful grace of a Clapton guitar solo came to change my life, and where I first heard the word “cocaine”. I only started to suspect it was a drug (the bad kind, not the kind my dad worked with) because Mrs. Reagan was really worried at the time and wouldn’t hush about it.
* I got the lump on my head in a rare and purely innocent bout of play with my dad, (poor dad). He was swinging my cousin and I around by our feet when I slipped out of my socks and sailed over the couch, landing on my head. I had to go to the emergency room, but managed to successfully whine myself right out of stitches. My residual feelings from the incident are about the fun we had, and how my mom was PISSED.
* Bless your heart! I meant the car could go fast! I’m glad I didn’t understand at the time that you thought I created some kind of fairy tale world in my concussed little head, where I believed my mom’s car could literally fly, and that you were concerned about my “mental and emotional maturity”. I would have been severely embarrassed and offended. I think it would have heavily impacted me. Now, I tell myself that moment of silliness must have been brought on by the, more understandable, stress of your previous assumptions about my family, and that you probably blush if you think of it now.
Whew! I’ve been holding all that for a long time! Now that we’ve laughed, there are some other, more serious things I’d like to tell you...that I desperately wish you would have known.
You were the first and only teacher to ever raise their voice at me. I’m not made about that, but I still vividly remember it so it must have had an impact. I wish I could have told you that I didn’t know why I couldn’t pay attention either, and I was just as frustrated as you.
More than once, you openly mocked my distraction. I remember being in shock that an adult would do something like that to a little kid, but sometimes we’d all laugh about it, and I’d be relieved that the mood was lifted. Now that I’m an adult, this infuriates me on so many levels! I wonder what message my classmates absorbed about how I should be treated, or if they associated your reaction with my obvious disability and if that colored their perception of disabled people. I wonder if it colored my perception of myself? I still struggle, now more than ever, with the baggage of ADHD being a character flaw or a set of bad habits I stubbornly and cling to. You contributed to that.
We were copying an invitation to our PTA program from the blackboard. You scolded me when I asked if I could substitute “cafeteria” for “lunchroom”. I guess you thought I was being difficult, but I was trying to show you my growing command of synonyms. We did that dance a lot.
Every time we worked on something independently, you would fuss if you caught me doing anything but feverishly applying pencil to worksheet, and you always caught me. But guess what, if it was math or reading comprehension I wasn’t working because I was already finished! I was reading independently years before I landed in your classroom. If it was writing or copying paragraphs, I was probably internally narrating my every observation.
We saved our little milk cartons for what felt like forever, and collectively transformed them into a small city to show off on Parents’ Night. I loved collaborating with the whole class on a creative project. I was especially proud when I saw all of our tiny buildings lined up and noticed mine was neat as a pin, because I traced the shapes of the milk carton and cut them out carefully, while most of my classmates cut and glued...like little kids. I feel like those results alone could have canceled out all your assumptions, but if you noticed, you never said.
I now understand that you were impossibly young, a first-year teacher. You were probably intimidated by my mother. It would be another decade before my family acknowledged my disability (to my face), but I had already noticed something was up. We were halfway between the era in which I’d be lucky to be in public school at all, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. No one was diagnosing little girls with ADHD in the 80s, especially not one who was born in “compensation mode”.
Logically I know all of this, but stomach flops every time I think of how you were the first one who obviously noticed my ADHD symptoms. Teachers, for better or worse, can be equally influential to children as their parents. They’ve even been known to mitigate the impact of an ill-suited guardian. You saw me all those years ago. What if you had nurtured my talents instead of emphasizing your own disappointments. How would my life be different now if you had been on my side?
* A version of this piece was published on The We Spot blog on March 21, 2021