Right before the bell, a student coyly slipped me a card. J’s attendance in my class had been off and on for a while, but recently, he had been present more often. “My mom wanted me to give this you, Ms. Spitz. I have NO idea what she wrote so…yeah.”
He smiled, went straight to his seat, and before I could say thanks or open the letter, sixth period on a Tuesday with all its beautiful chaos and glory was underway.
That same Tuesday, I gave a writing assignment. I thought it was well-planned, well-taught, and so when none of my students were chomping at the bit to get it done, I got frustrated. How could they not want to read FDR’s speech? This is a piece of freaking art, people! I tried to motivate them, to energize them, and at one point, I think I even tried singing. But still, I felt like I was talking to a wall. Or to a bunch of teenagers on a weary Tuesday afternoon. A name by any other name would smell just as sweet. :)
Earlier that Tuesday, I got called into a parent meeting during my prep. A bright, wonderful young man had been suspended for bringing a pot cookie to school. Not the end of the world. But what came to light in the meeting was that this amazing kid was dealing with a ton of trauma at home. Things that no one, let alone a 16-year-old, should have to be dealing with. It made my heart hurt.
That Tuesday was in many ways, just a typical day at work: A lesson plan that didn’t go great, a failed attempt to sing Mariah Carey to energize my classroom, and a student who needs some extra support, love, and guidance. But when I came home, I was feeling sad and unsuccessful—two of my least favorite feelings. On most days like this (because they happen—no matter how long you’ve been at this teaching thing), a jam sesh to the Hamilton musical on the elliptical or a snuggle-sesh with my dog (look at her! isn’t she the best?) will do the trick. But on that Tuesday, I needed something more. And that’s when I remembered the letter.
It was still tucked away in my computer case, and in all the craziness of that Tuesday, I had forgotten to read it. It was 7:22 pm. I was in my pajamas and felt like I could go to bed. I opened the envelope to find a handwritten letter from J’s mom. The front of the card was a simple drawing of flowers, and the inside contained one of the most beautiful passages ever:
“Dear Ms. Spitz,” she wrote, “I cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am for your reaching out to J.” The letter continued with her expressing her deepest gratitude that I had emailed J last week to check in on him and let him know he was missed.
The letter ended with “I am a teacher. I know how hard you work. I sometimes want to reach out to a student and don’t (forget or decide against). You remind me never to do that. Thank you.”
It had taken me approximately one minute to write that email to J. One minute.
Weird how that letter from J’s mom made thoughts of going to sleep seem ridiculous. It made thoughts of the challenges and frustrations of that Tuesday disappear. It made me want to hold on to it forever because it made me want to teach for the next 50 billion years.
The next day when I saw J, I told him to please tell his mom that her letter was going straight into my teacher box. “What’s that mean?” he asked. I told him his mom would know exactly what I meant. That a teacher box is that thing that teachers keep forever, and so on days that are hard, we pull it out, and look at the gems in there and it reminds us that we have the best job ever and that little things are BIG.
The first year you’re a teacher is the hardest year ever for countless reasons, but the thing that I think makes it the hardest is that you don’t have your teacher box just yet. You don’t necessarily know that when you send an email that took you a minute to write, it could mean the world to a student and their family. You don’t have a collection of letters, pictures, party favors, Post-Its, and videos that remind you that hey, all this work, and all this love, and all this exhaustion and frustration is so worth it.
The teacher box, I believe, is the most essential resource for teachers to stay in the game. It is the holy grail, the sword in the stone, the whole enchilada, the Bey-to-the-once. I tell all the first-year teachers I come across to just hold on, just hold on until you get your first teacher box item. Because once you get it, the thought of not being a teacher just makes no sense.
So on that Tuesday, instead of going to bed at 7:22 pm, I decided I’d dive into my teacher box. Some things I came across that I hadn’t revisited in a while:
- A Post-It from a student that said, “I LOVE YOU MS. SPITZ!!” with the Target logo because she knew that is my favorite store. Always was, always will be.
- A party favor from a student’s Quinceanera that included a plastic replica of her in her dress. It. is. amazing.
- A drawing my advisees created of my make-believe boyfriend. According to them, his name is Frank, he wears a tank top, and he is 45.
- A Facebook message from a student from my first year teaching apologizing if she was ever rude to me, explaining to me that she is now in nursing school, and remembers that I was nothing but patient and kind and that I always had her best interests at heart. (For the record, by “rude” she meant cursing me out almost every day and making me cry at least once a week. But I never cried in front of her. Okay, maybe once.)
So on that Tuesday, as I tucked my teacher box away with its newest addition, all I could think about was how excited I was for work tomorrow. (And how Hamilton is coming to San Francisco in March 2017.)