To Save a Life

Tonight Brian told me that I saved a student’s life. He couldn’t remember her name, but she was a client of a colleague of his and this girl said that I had been instrumental in getting her the help she needed when she was in crisis and that without those resources she is sure she wouldn’t be here today. She told Brian’s colleague, “That teacher saved my life.”

I have no idea who this girl is.

I’m hoping that Brian will find out so that I can match a face to a name, but for now, I’m left wondering if really, I made that profound an impact on a life. I mean, it feels great, ego-wise to be able to tell yourself that your role is somehow that important, and maybe it even balances out some of the stark sadness when it all goes tragically wrong for some of our kids, but on a day to day level it’s easy to forget that what we do has a tangible impact.

This makes me think of my grandfather, who taught at Canterbury so many years ago. He taught JFK and so many others who would later become important figures in history. He had an impact on lives that became household names. Grandpa, who taught some of the greats, ended his career, and perhaps his life, feeling like he hadn’t made a difference in anyone’s life. He ended his days wondering if it had all been in vain; if he had wasted years that he could have spent composing music or creating something “lasting” trying to reach students who, in the end seemed not to be reached at all.

To say that my grandfather reached people is a gross understatement. Books have been dedicated to him; scholarships exist in his name; I’m fairly sure there’s a building somewhere that holds his name. He mattered. But, when your world is one that resides in the worlds of young people, that impact is rarely, if ever, felt in the moment. Instead we feel the moments we fail.

I will, until the day I die, carry the impact of Jack’s death on my heart. He was the boy I lost. I didn’t lose him alone and it’s not my burden to carry. But, I don’t think I’ll ever hear someone praise what I do without a small picture of him in my mind, sitting there that last day he spent on our earth, with me asking him all the wrong questions and demanding all the wrong answers.

I know that my grandfather held that memory too, whatever it was. There is not a teacher alive who doesn’t carry some profound sense of failure with them (and, I would argue that those who disagree with that statement are either new to the game or utterly uninvested). What we don’t always carry with us are the lives that we’ve touched.

I know that my grandfather touched lives, and it breaks my heart that he ended his days unsure of his impact. I fully, completely understand it, but it sill makes my sad. As for lives that I touched? I don’t know, maybe someone somewhere, a bit. It’s hard to say with over 100 a year, over 1,400 so far in my career. Maybe.

Tonight I heard, in passing, that I had an impact on a girl’s life. A girl I can’t picture, a name he can’t remember, and a scenario that doesn’t immediately jump out to me. If he hadn’t been in the midst of a conversation that happened to turn in that direction it never would have made it back to me, and even having traveled to me it has the quality of a game of “Telephone” where I really don’t have a solid grasp of the specifics.

But, none of that matters. And, to be honest, this idea that somehow I did something that may have helped someone is not important. What’s significant is that we never know the impact that we have on others, positive or negative. Those words that we say in passing that may alter a life for better or worse. Those missed opportunities for connection that linger in our souls forever as well as those moments of connection that we may not even know we’re having.

In the end, we all have an impact. As teachers we’re sometimes hit harder with it than others may be, but it’s still no less true for any of us. I would be hard pressed to take credit for saving anyone, any more than I will accept the clutching sadness that comes from feeling that I was incapable of saving someone else. But, I will try to remember that as a teacher my actions and my words carry weight far beyond what I am aware of, and, like my grandfather, I will likely never know the full impact of my connections. So, I need to always proceed with the hopes that I at the least do no harm, and that at my best, maybe, in some small way I can touch a life and make it just a little bit better.


Summer Reading Challenge

At the start of every summer the girls go around and collect all of the Summer Reading Challenge forms from local establishments. The two big ones are the chain bookstore, which offers a free book for students who complete the reading challenge, and the local bookstore, which offers an advance copy of a book as well as a gift certificate and a party for readers who complete the entire challenge. Every year the girls fall short of the grand prize party, but this year they were both determined to make it.

Hayden and I have been reading together all summer and we’ve been plowing through books, but those books have all been “Mommy Audio Books” in that I’ve been reading and she’s been listening. In order to complete the sheet she needed to read books as well. Of course, the challenge there is that her reading level is still significantly below “grade level” so her Reading Challenge Sheet has everything from “Harry Potter” to “Fly Guy Goes to the Circus”. But, she’s been plugging away and yesterday she completed her form.

She was elated driving to the bookstore. I was worried. The sheet clearly states that the books must be “grade level appropriate” and while I would be surprised if anyone challenged her reading list, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility. Last year one of the associates told Hayden that a book she selected was “way too easy for her” and wouldn’t she rather read something by Percy Jackson (at that time she couldn’t even have read the titles of his books). I stood there silently while Hayden listened to the associate rattle off titles that we both knew were far too advanced, and then we quietly picked up the book she had chosen to read on her own as well as a book that I would read with her. We’ve come a long way in a year though.

This time last year the girls hadn’t started working with the specialists at SLC and we weren’t using the word “dyslexia” to describe their challenges. Since then we’ve learned, as a family, that using the word is empowering and for Hayden especially the ability to articulate her learning differences has made her more confident. “Dyslexia” is a term that comes up all the time in our home now and in using it the perceived stigma has dissipated.

As we drove to town I worried about the possibility of an uncomfortable discussion with an associate of the store but I knew that unlike last year, it wouldn’t be shrouded in silence. Many people assume that the kinds of kids who complete Summer Reading Challenges are strong readers who devour books at break -neck speed, and I’m sure that that’s probably the case for many avid readers. So, helping people to understand that some of our dedicated readers are motivated in spite of the fact that it’s challenging is important. The fact that we as a family, and Hayden specifically, aren’t ashamed of these challenges any more makes it much easier to open up these conversations when they arise.

As it turned out, the associate was helpful and kind and she barely glanced at the forms. As she passed in her form Kaya proudly announced that all of the books she read were at her level and some of the books even had chapters. Then she fired off questions about this celebration party – how many people would there be, would the ice cream be “ice cream Sundays” or “ice cream bars” (either is fine, of course, but one wants to be prepared. There’s nothing worse than expecting a “make your own Sunday” bar and instead getting an ice cream sandwich from a cooler). Once her questions were answered she was ready to move on with her day. Hayden spent that time browsing the shelves and picking out books that she wanted me to read with her.

I’m proud of the girls, not just for the work they put into those reading challenges, but also for the work that they put into their reading all summer. They are in school three hours a day, four days a week and then two more hours a week in Rochester working with their specialists. And then they come home and….well, they come home and chill out watching “Liv and Maddie” and swimming…but, when they’re done with that they read some more and I read with them. I’ve let go of the idea that Hayden will wake up one morning and settle in with a book independently, that could happen, and the Kindle is helping with it (being able to enlarge the text and click on words for definitions makes a big difference) but that’s kind of like assuming that I’ll wake up one morning and run a marathon. With time, dedication and a whole lot of pacing it can happen, but for now I’m happy with the “5K” version where she’ll sit down and devour National Geographic Kids and then settle in to let me read novels with her. She’ll run the sprints, I’ll drive the long distances and in the end we’ll get there.

And, this Sunday the girls will go to a party that celebrates readers. They will eat ice cream (the good kind) and I will celebrate the fact that in spite of all of the time and effort it takes, I have two girls who are in love with books.

Welcome to The Club

Last year, in passing, Hayden mentioned the “100s Club”. It recognizes students who earn 100+ points for reading books and passing reading comprehension quizzes. As a third grader, Hayden wanted to earn a spot in the group. I contacted a few people to find out a bit more and I was told that it’s very difficult for students to make it to the 100s club and that since very few students achieve that goal, it really might be best not to pursue it. Because last year was a year of struggle and Hayden was already feeling fairly vulnerable I let it go and so did Hayden. Hayden finished out her 3rd grade year having scored just 14 points.

This year Hayden decided to go for it. She set a goal for herself and every month we tracked her progress, both in terms of books she read independently and books we read together at bedtime. By March it was clear that reaching the 100’s Club was going to be a challenge. Most of the books she was reading on her own were only worth a few points and they took a long time for her to read. But, she soldiered on. Then, in early May I watched something change for her. She started to come home talking about books she was reading independently at school, books that her friends were reading too and recommending. Her friends are all readers and they would recommend and share books regularly. But, those books had always been far above Hayden’s independent reading level and it was a source of frustration for her. But, now she was chatting with friends about the latest Lemonade War book and making suggestions based on her own reading.

That “thing”, that “flipping of the switch” that her reading specialists have talked about for the past year is starting to happen. She is reading grade level books independently, understanding them and seeking out new titles. My girl is a reader. She has always liked reading, but now reading is starting to like her back.

On Wednesday Hayden was welcomed into the 100s Club, having scored 120+ points. Pizza and cupcakes were served and all of the readers got to gather together to celebrate their accomplishment. For many of those kids reading is as natural as breathing and I’m sure for some of them the 100s Club is an opportunity to have a party and a picture in the yearbook for something they would be doing anyway. For Hayden it represents a milestone. Now, to be fair, around 50 of those 100 points came from Harry Potter books that we read together night after night for months on end, but that leaves 50 points that she earned through reading on her own, in school and outside of our regular bedtime routine. This is something that she simply could not have done a year ago. Honestly, I don’t think she could have done it six months ago.

It’s not just the increase in reading fluency to be celebrated though.

The 4th graders are reading Out of My Mind right now; a book about a girl with a significant, life-altering disability. The class was talking about disabilities and the teacher invited them to share information about various disabilities that they know about. Hayden told me that she raised her hand and she told the class that she has a disability called dyslexia. She went on to explain what that is and how it impacts her.

That afternoon when she told me about the discussion I asked her how she felt about sharing that information (this, coming from a 40 something who still hides her own challenges from most people). She said it felt good to be able to put a name on it and explain it to people. She told me that the topic of her last “Passion Project” of the year will be dyslexia, because she wants to understand it better and share that information with her classmates and teachers so that they can understand it too.

I love that she can finally put a name to this challenge she’s been facing for so long, and I love that rather than feeling limited by it she feels empowered to find ways to overcome some of the roadblocks she’s been facing. It’s not an easy road, to be sure, and all summer she and her sister will spend 16 hours a week working with specialists to keep gaining ground, but it’s paying off and she knows it. It’s not a journey I ever expected to be on, but I’m so inspired by both of my girls as they navigate the challenges they face; I can only imagine what the future holds.

Test Scores

Last night Brian and I met with the director at the Seacoast Learning Center to go over the girls’ recent battery of tests to determine what progress they’ve made since starting the reading program for dyslexic learners. They’ve been attending the SLC twice a week, every week for nine months, and they’ll be attending all summer, all of next year and the following summer if necessary. They are allowed to miss two classes per year (not per semester….per year) and if the program doesn’t seem to be a good fit they can be asked to leave in order to make room for another student. The program is fully funded by the Masons and I did the math recently – out of pocket an equivalent level of intervention by a trained Orton-Gillingham tutor would cost us over $17,000, and that’s if we could find a tutor trained at the level the girls require.

The end of year meeting is something of a “moment of truth” where the director looks at the level of dedication of the family (attendance, punctuality etc.) as well as the scores to determine if it’s a good fit. In our case, we all know it’s a great opportunity but, in the end it comes down to progress.

Hayden began the program in September as a fourth grader reading at a first grade level in every area except comprehension, where she tested at 2.4 (second grade level). We were told from the start that her prognosis wasn’t spectacular because of the way the brain develops as we grow and the fact that she wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until the start of third grade. Our goal was a year of growth in as many of the 11 subsections of the test as possible.

Out of the 11 reading tests, Hayden advanced by at least a grade level in all of them and in some, she flat out soared. Comprehension went from 2.4 to 6.3 (She’s now comprehending at a 6th grade level) and her CTOPP (another test of reading) went from a 2.5 (second grade level) to 6.0 (sixth grade level). In several other areas she has hit grade level. I asked the director what she thinks the prognosis will be by the time Hayden finishes the program. I was hoping that she’d finish a year behind overall (which would still represent an enormous gain). The director told me that based on what she’s seeing she feels that Hayden will finish the program reading at grade level with her peers. This represents herculean effort on Hayden’s part to work on her reading all the time, including being pulled of class for an hour a day, working at the SLC with specialists twice a week outside of school and just working, and working and working. Without the program in Rochester though I know there’s no way she would have made these gains in a year.

As for Kaya, she started out less impacted; her scores show that she started off the year reading at a first grade level too, but as a second grader this didn’t represent as large a gap. In her case, she also went up in all areas and her strengths turned out to be Word Attack (reading nonsense words – this shows decoding strategies since none of the words would be easily recognizable sight words) where she went from a 1.3 (fist grade, third month) to a 4.5 (fourth grade). Three other tests out of the 11 tests placed her solidly at the 4th grade level as well. She now only has two areas where she’s testing below grade level, and one of them is timed rapid naming of words, which she may or may not ever be great at (since rapid recall is a slightly different skill that has a lot to do with processing speed).

It’s a great feeling when something that’s challenging and time consuming brings such great rewards. The girls give up so much, including most of their summer –
the summer program is three hours a day, four days a week and Rochester, with the commute is another 2.5 hours twice a week – but, seeing the growth that’s coming from it makes it all worthwhile. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without the resources we have access to, both inside and outside of school. They both have a long way to go, and for Hayden especially, it’s going to take enormous effort on her part to “make it” , but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it feels so good to be heading toward it.

The elementary school has something called “The Hundreds Club” where students who score 100 or more points for reading are rewarded at the end of the year. Two years ago I was told by Hayden’s teacher not to even encourage her to try; that it was a goal for none but the most ambitious, strong readers. This year, as of early May, Hayden is at 85 points. Just 15 points to go and a month to reach her goal. She’ll make it. It won’t come easy and it won’t be taken for granted. My girl is working hard for this and she’ll get there. As much as I hate that so much is a struggle for her, I love the larger lessons that it teaches. That kid doesn’t. give. up. Not even a little bit, and it will serve her well in life. She’ll make it to the Hundred’s Club this year and God willing she’ll read at grade level with her peers by the end of next year. But, no matter what, there are lessons here that we’re all learning about dedication, striving, and ultimately about accepting who we are amidst the challenges we face. There’s probably a lesson in there for all of us.

My Little Big Secret

So, some of you already know, and some of you undoubtably have figured it out along the way. You have seen it crop up here and there and you’ve been polite and you haven’t said anything, or you’ve been kind and you’ve gently pointed it out. Some of you haven’t seen it at all either because of the nature of our correspondence or because it hasn’t shown itself. I didn’t think I was ashamed of it, I didn’t even think I was hiding it really. Not until I asked myself, “Then, why don’t you tell your students? Why do you just avoid writing on the board, but offer no explanation?” The answer is simple really. I just didn’t know how to say it. How to put it into words.

Yesterday I was writing vocabulary words on the board. They were already on the board in one place, I was just rewriting them in categories to help the kids. I think they noticed that I had to stop and focus on each word before I rewrote it. And then I had to go back and look at it again. And again. And still I couldn’t tell. I had never said the words before and I felt like it was time, not for them, but for me. “I have to keep looking,” I said finally, “because I’m dyslexic and I can’t tell if what I wrote is correct”.

The kids didn’t bat an eye. They didn’t care. They just wanted the words down so they could study. But for me it was a milestone. I had never put it in words to my students. And, for as much as I would chastise anyone for feeling this way, it was for one simple reason, I was embarrassed. I have always thought that being a dyslexic teacher made me somehow a little bit less. Not subpar, not unqualified, but a little bit less. How can one teach the mechanics of language when that language has always been both a companion and a curse?

The first time I became aware that I was “different” was in seventh grade. I was a strong writer and my seventh grade teacher loved my writing. But, on every paper she’d write some variation on the theme of, “I wish I could give you the A that you so sorely deserve but I can’t because of your spelling. Use a dictionary!” (That’s a direct quote). Here’s a thing though, a dictionary would do no good, I knew it then and I know it now. I didn’t care back then, grades meant nothing to me and it never occurred to me to explain to her that a dictionary is useless for someone like me because nothing looks wrong. If I spell “like” “lkie” it looks completely the same. My mind moves the letters around (I guess) until it looks like what you probably see when you look at the word. Nothing looks wrong. You know that internet meme that goes around every so often? Well, when I first read that I had no idea what the point was. That paragraph looks completely normal to me. I had to reread it several times to understand why it was a “thing”. That’s what dyslexia is for me.

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…”

In college I made sure that I “dumbed down” my vocabulary in all of my exams. Sure, I could use the word “esoteric” but because I couldn’t be sure that I could spell it properly and I’d never know, I’d default to “complex”. I avoided writing notes to professors because I worried that they’d judge me based on my spelling, so instead I was sure to attend office hours.

Even now, as a teacher, I don’t write on the board and I don’t grade students’ papers by hand. Everything is electronic because I can count on the faithful red line to tell me if something isn’t right.

I always just accepted that about myself and I never really thought I was intentionally hiding anything. Technology is a useful way of corresponding with students after all and writing on the board makes for a less student-centered class. These are things I told myself but really, I didn’t want to face the reality that something happens in my brain that makes me process words differently.

Not every dyslexic is the same. Letters don’t dance or jump on my pages and I’m actually an extremely fast reader (perhaps because my brain isn’t bothered by things like the order of letters in a word), but I do switch “b” and “p” quite often when I’m tired and if I’m writing by hand it’s likely that around 40% of my words will be misspelled (example…I just misspelled “misspelled”). And, most frustrating to me, words just don’t “look wrong” so I always run the risk of looking functionally illiterate when I write by hand.

So, why am I putting all of this out here now? Why “come out” when I have effective methods for navigating my world? I think it’s because I still struggle with the stigma. If I as a teacher with two masters degrees who is a published writer and who has been successful in a world that relies on the written word still feels ashamed of this part of myself, then what does that likely say about all of the others out there? How do our students feel when we write them off as “lazy” and we make claims about their effort when really they are working harder than 80% of their peers just to hit the same bar? How do our kids feel when we send them the message that maybe they’re just not college material because no matter what they do they simply can’t seem to achieve the same (arbitrary) levels as their peers in the same way? Are we sending them messages that empower them and are we looking for ways to help them or are we simply taking the easy way out by writing them off as unmotivated so that we don’t have to do the difficult work of untangling their challenges and finding ways to help them?

I would contend that one of the biggest challenges we face when confronting dyslexia is that the vast majority of dyslexics are very intelligent so they (we) find ways to compensate for our challenges. This is a fantastic skill, but it doesn’t really help when it comes to getting assistance in working through some of those challenges. And, let’s face it, it’s easier not to address one more thing in our already overtaxed classrooms. If a student is doing mostly okay-ish and is pretty compliant that child is pretty likely to fall through the cracks, or to get interventions that, while well-meaning probably aren’t going to help a whole lot. This isn’t because teachers don’t care, it’s just not an area that most teachers are trained in or fully understand and it’s always easier to pass the buck back to the kid.

As for me, I don’t know. I find it empowering to be able to give voice to what my world looks like rather than always trying to hide that reality. But, I also know that people do make judgements, I see it all the time, and I know that acknowledging one deficit means raising the bar in five other areas just to balance it all out to prove that you’re not “flawed” in some way.

The more I examine my own world the more I wish that my young self had had a name for all of this. I think that knowing that it was an actual thing would have gone a long way toward making me feel whole and competent. But, who knows. Labels hold stigma too, and they can be limiting. Would I have pursued writing and teaching if I had allowed myself to say the word “dyslexic” out loud? I’m not sure. I’ve know for a long time that that was the word for it; it’s one of my strongest family traits, and in my mind I’ve said it thousands of times. But out loud? That’s different. That’s a level of ownership that you can’t pull back from. But, there it is. I am dyslexic and I come from a long line of dyslexics. I can spell my name backward and it will still look like it’s mine. And, I am going to do my best to own that part of myself and to not be ashamed of it, because I have daughters who count on me to model for them the ways they should see themselves, and because I am not flawed. And really, the one who needs to hear that most is me.

What’s at Stake

I know, I’ve been talking quite a bit about the swarm of education bills swirling around right now. And, for people who don’t live in the world of education a lot of this is probably a bit confusing and it’s easy to just sit back and try to ignore it all. But, we really can’t. The latest, and by far the most dangerous education bill out there right now is HB610, and I’m going to do my best to explain what’s at stake if this one passes.

The stated intent behind HB610 is to give families the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice (public, charter, private, home school etc) and to let their tax money follow them to whatever school they choose rather than having it stay in the public schools. On the surface this probably sounds great and it’s easy to throw words like “choice” and “options” out there (because, who would want to deny kids the choice of the education that suits them best?). But, here’s where it gets tricky…

Say we have 4 families, each with one child. All of them get voucher money to use for whatever school they want. Say the voucher covers $5,000 a year (this would be high, but for the sake of simplicity let’s use this figure). Great right?

Kiddo #1 has a stay-at-home mom and a dad with a good job. They send their kid to a private school that’s 15 miles away, but mom can drop off and pick up the kids (no buses to private schools). Their $5,000 doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition, but they can cover the rest out of pocket. So, they’re all set. They love the voucher because they’ve been paying for the whole tuition out of pocket and now they don’t have to. They love the vouchers, and the system works for them.

Kiddo #2 – Working class parents. They choose a local Catholic school. Transportation is an issue, but they can figure out how to carpool. The tuition difference is an issue, but the school is willing to work with them to make it happen. The challenge is that their kid ADHD. The school makes it clear that they don’t have the resources to help their child and they need to sign a waiver saying that they are willing to give up their special education services since the school can’t provide them. The parents are hesitant to do this because they know their kid needs services, but they really like the idea of a Catholic school and they love the idea of choice, so they do it. A month later the school tells them that it’s just not a good fit. Their kiddo can’t stay at the school – his issues are too severe and they don’t have the resources. He goes back to the public school. By law, the Catholic school keeps that voucher money even though he was only there for a month. (So, even though he’s at the public school now, his money isn’t. So, the money he needs for his services aren’t there anymore).

Kiddo #3 – Single mom limited income. She would love to send her kid to a different school, but she doesn’t have the flexibility to drive the child to and from the local charter school,and she can’t make up the difference in tuition for the other schools (not that she could provide transportation) so her child has to stay at the public school. He was relying on breakfast and lunch programs to get healthy meals at school but those have been cut by HB610 so now the food he’s getting is processed, high in fat and sugar and not giving him the stamina he needs. He’s also not getting breakfast anymore. He can’t focus as well and behavior issues are a problem. He’s at the public school.

Kiddo #4 – Middle class parents. They have no issues with transportation and they can make up the difference in voucher money. They want to send their kid to the Charter School. But, their child his physical disabilities. The local Charter school is in a renovated building and while it’s “mostly” ADA compliant, the wheelchair doesn’t fit into the bathroom, the upstairs rooms aren’t accessible and he can’t access the playground because of the layout. The Charter school tells the parents they don’t think it would be a good fit and they worry about liability. Plus, they just don’t have the resources to give him the help he needs (OT, PT, Speech, etc.). The private school won’t take him (he doesn’t meet academic standards) and neither will the Catholic school (they don’t have the resources to help him)

So, now, of the four kids, only one can take advantage of the voucher. We’re left with three kids, all of whom have special needs of one sort or another (because of poverty, learning disabilities and physical disabilities ) but only funding for two kids (because that one spent a month at private school which ate his voucher). Because the kids who were able to make use of their vouchers and find another school have done so, no “able bodied” kids are left to subsidize the kids who need extra services, and the schools are left unable to provide those services. (This doesn’t happen right away because most public schools are actually quite strong academically, but as more and more kids leave with their money and funding becomes scarce programs dry up.) So, now the public school becomes a dumping ground for the disadvantaged with no resources to give them a quality education (And the legal requirement to give them a high quality education was taken away by HB620).

Family #1 is breathing a sigh of relief that they got their kid out of a “Failing Public School” and they feel empowered by the fact that as they suspected, public schools are failing and thank God they had an alternative. They rest easy with the knowledge that their child gets a quality education thanks to this new law. They can’t imagine how anyone in their right mind would feel otherwise.

Those other three families? They have no options and the school that used to serve their kids is no longer able to. They have been thrust backward decades in terms of education and there’s nothing they can do about it.

For those of us who are the lucky ones who have the money, the flexibility and the ideal child candidate to make vouchers work , we owe it to our society to look beyond ourselves to see the larger picture. As a country we have always taken pride in educating all of our children; it has set us apart from other countries since our inception. Now isn’t the time to turn the clock back and leave our children behind.

For those of us who represent those other groups – the kids who have special needs, the parents who can’t afford to make up the difference and all of those other families, we need the support of everyone to help our children to keep a quality education.

We are better than this. We need to be.


When I was in fourth grade I received my first diary as a Christmas present. That diary became my best friend, my confidant and the audience for my musings. On the first page I transcribed my favorite Mark Twain quote, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” At the time I saw no great lesson to be learned by reading what I wrote. I saw little of value in it at all. But I wrote. I wrote every night and I wrote to an audience. I wrote to “you” and “whomever is reading this”. I wrote with the intention of someday being read. And now that’s happening.

Hayden is in fourth grade. Over Christmas break I told her about the diary and I told her that together we could start reading it. And, we have.
It’s difficult to describe the surreal quality of hearing my young self speak directly to my young girl. I have chosen to simply step aside and let the two of them converse. Hayden has learned that when I was her age I didn’t sleep, at all. Most of my entries were logged between 2am and 4am. I didn’t express my sadness directly, but I wrote extensively about teachers who didn’t understand or care about me, other kids who thought I was weird, and all sorts of other issues that collectively show that I was a very lonely child.

Hayden isn’t a lonely child. She has a solid social network and if anything she is the polar opposite of who I was at that age. While my fourth grade self was aligning to the “bad kids”– kids who smoked, cut class and got in trouble, Hayden is shocked that she has a mother who got a B- in art. “It’s art, Mom! I mean, really, are you my mother?!”. I love that she is able to see who I was at that age and that what she sees is a flawed, often confused girl attempting to navigate a challenging world.

I worry a bit about the door I have opened, because there’s no way to close it now. That door will lead to first loves and first heartbreaks, to choices that I hope she never makes, as well as choices that led me to the life I have now, which I wouldn’t change for anything. That door leads to the world of who I was an ultimately, who I am. I don’t know if I made the right choice by opening that dialogue now, many people hide their diaries until they die, or they burn them before they find their way into anyone’s hands, but we live in a crazy world; I watch the parents of my students as they attempt to find connection with their kids and to help them to navigate their challenging worlds. I don’t really know how to do that, but maybe my young self does. So, I’m going to stand back and listen to what my young self has to say.