The Invisible Student
By Casey Lee
Don’t reveal anything about your personal life.
Lock anything that matters to you in the trunk of your car, and make sure that no one knows which vehicle belongs to you.
Don’t worry about their personal lives; if something seems sketchy, refer it to the guidance department and forget it ever happened.
And most importantly, whatever you do, don’t even think about cracking a smile before Christmas.
No, these are not instructions for one’s first week on the job at a maximum-security prison facility. These are supposedly helpful tidbits of advice that I received from seasoned teachers before diving headfirst into one of the most chaotic and stressful experiences one could possibly embark upon: my first year as a high school English teacher.
What’s funny to me is the fact that I’m proud to admit that I broke every single one of these rules during my first week as a ninth grade English teacher, and I don’t regret it one bit, because breaking the rules is what helped me to reach out to my students.
Not only did I admit to my very southern students that I was indeed a “Yankee,” I also told them about my fiancé and my upcoming wedding and my crazy family. I loaned out some of my personal favorite books to students I had only known for a matter of days without any type of collateral. When we read in class, I didn’t stand with a scholarly demeanor at a podium; I took off my dress shoes and sat cross-legged on the corner of my desk. And you know what I greeted them with the second I met them? The biggest smile I could make.
As a twenty-two year old in the midst of my first year of teaching, I’m certainly learning as I go, but so far I have learned that there are a lot of myths out there that need to be busted about teaching. Teenagers are not out to destroy anyone older than them; they are not all gun-slinging gang-bangers. They’re people, and whether you want to admit it or not, you were one of them not too long ago. And frankly, many of these teens are hurting more than we realize.
On my first day, as I stood there in the only blazer I owned and one of my two pairs of “dry-clean only” pants, I noticed a girl with black jeans and a black hoodie pulled up over her head. From what I could see of her face, she was a pretty girl with deep brown eyes and mocha-colored skin. As the other kids nodded towards me or greeted me with a smattering of “hellos,” “heys,” and “how’s it goings,” she colored her fingernails with a Sharpie that matched the darkness of her clothes.
I noticed that other teachers looked down awkwardly as this girl, whom we’ll refer to as Allie, entered their classrooms. She was different, and unfortunately, different is uncomfortable in the eyes of too many people, even teachers. I refused to ignore her and greeted her like every other student. The first time I did so, Allie looked at me like I was crazy. She must have thought that either I was an idiot, or she had something on her face. It was obvious that she was used to being ignored, and she didn’t really know how to handle the fact that I was treating her like a real person. I continued to greet her enthusiastically but genuinely each day, and eventually I started getting subtle smiles in return. What a beautiful smile this girl hid behind her baggy clothes and dark makeup.
I started off our daily writing exercises with narrative writing because students like talking and writing about themselves more than anything else. I tried to come up with journal topics that would be relevant to students, such as a time when they felt completely alone, or a time when they had to rely on themselves and no one else to succeed.
Allie may not have been willing to chat it up with her fellow students, or myself, but I watched her feverishly fill up pages and pages of lined paper each day with her Sharpie. When it came time for me to collect the narratives, I was especially interested in what my mystery student had been so busy writing about.
Allie’s peers were busy writing about mostly trivial subjects like how embarrassing it was when Mrs. Holliday read Anna’s dirty note in front of everyone, or how Caleb’s life was changed forever when he locked eyes with a gorgeous Minnesotan on vacation with her family in Myrtle Beach over the summer. When I reached Allie’s work, my mind stopped wandering and I became completely engrossed in what she had to say.
Allie lived with her grandparents in a cramped apartment about twenty minutes away from the school because her mother was a drug addict and not only couldn’t raise her, but didn’t care to. She was scared of what would happen to her when her aging grandparents passed away because they were truly the only family she had.
When Allie was young, her mother would pick her up for weekly “play dates,” which mostly consisted of Allie spending afternoons watching soap operas while her mother did drugs with one of the countless boyfriends she had over the years.
Allie revealed that she wore sweatshirts and jeans in the summertime because of the scarring all over her body. Her mother would become frighteningly violent whenever she was in a deep, drug-induced stupor, and as Allie put it herself, it was no longer enough for her mother to hurt herself. She had to hurt Allie, as well.
Allie recounted the fear and pain she felt when her mother would take burning hot tongs and smash them into the skin on Allie’s hands and arms, how her mother carved her father’s name into her leg with broken glass. She said that she couldn’t trust teachers because there was absolutely no way that they had any idea what was going on; they were just too busy with their own lives to speak up.
After reading Allie’s memoirs, I had little idea as to what I should do. I contacted our guidance office, and they said that while they could offer her free counseling, there was no need to report the incidents because they were clearly not occurring anymore. I was almost sorry I had even brought the issue up with them. After all, what fifteen-year old girl wants to hear that she can have free counseling, but no one can do anything because it’s too late? That response would have upset me as a teenager, and I knew it would do the same for Allie.
I knew I had to say something, especially when Allie came up to me the next day before school. “Hey, can you read my paper before the others?” she asked.
I’ll admit that I lied to her; I nodded and said I would be happy to after school, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I needed more time to digest what I had read and to come up with an appropriate response. “I’m sorry this happened” or “I’m glad it’s no longer happening” hardly seemed sufficient follow-up comments to such a heinous revelation.
That’s when I decided that because Allie opened up to me in writing, I would do the same. That evening, I wrote a letter from my heart to Allie. I spilled my heart onto my paper, rambling about how her writing had literally brought me to tears and how I wouldn’t pretend to completely understand what she had gone through. I ended the letter with a quotation from an indie rock song I knew she would likely be familiar with: “The saddest thing I’ve ever seen is a man who didn’t think his life was his for making.” I told her that no one had the right to do this to her, and that her best revenge for what happened would be to take full charge of her life and not allow it to stop her from succeeding. I likened the scars on her arms to tattoos that tell the story of her life, tattoos to be proud of because they reveal how much adversity she has overcome to be the amazing young woman she is today.
As I slipped Allie the note as she walked into class, I second-guessed myself. Had my comments been too personal? Too corny? Too melodramatic for someone who had gone through so much? I found it difficult to focus on the lesson at hand, but trudged through it to the best of my ability.
I noticed Allie tuning my lesson out, and rather than be offended, I was worried that I had turned her off to me for the rest of the year. If she felt like I had betrayed her trust or had an inappropriate response, she would shut herself off for the remainder of her time with me.
As the bell rang at the end of the period, I was shocked to see Allie’s normally rather stoic face streaming with tears as she folded my note carefully back up and stuck it inside her binder. “Thanks, teach,” she said as she left the room.
The following week, my students had an assignment to write about a time when they had made a difference in someone’s life in some way. Allie raised her hand, a rare occurrence. Once I nodded for her to go ahead and ask her question, she responded, “I can’t think of a time when I really made a big difference. Can I write about a time when someone made an impact on me?”
I told her that would be fine, that the point of the assignment was to get them to reflect on their lives and get their emotions out on paper. She nodded and began to write in the feverish manner that I had become accustomed to witnessing.
At the end of the period, the rest of the class headed to the cafeteria in a loud buzz of gossip as Allie continued writing. She folded her paper in half and handed it to me. “Read mine first again?” she asked with a tiny smile.
“But of course,” I responded with my dorky laugh, which I hear students mimicking on a regular basis. At least I know it’s dorky, right?
I unfolded the ratty, Sharpie-splattered paper after Allie left.
No one has ever really stood up for me like Ms. Lee did. I was kinda worried after I told her that my mom had done some pretty messed up shit to me as a kid. I thought she would contact DSS or Child Protective Services or whatever and they would ask me all these questions. Instead she was really cool about it. She wrote me a letter and complimented me on things that are pretty good about myself, things that no one else has ever said before. She included a line from a song about how it’s the saddest thing in life when someone doesn’t know that they are in control. I guess she was trying to tell me that I need to take charge of my life and quit hiding behind what my mom did to me. I’m going to stop hiding and being ashamed of it because it’s not my fault. No one ever believed my story before other than my grandpa. I’m never going to treat my kids like that because I’m bigger and better than my mom. I’m in charge of my life, and I know it. So thanks for believing me Ms. Lee because that was really awesome of you and I trust you. I have never trusted a teacher before because they pretty much all just judge me. Thanks. –Allie
The next day, Allie wore her same old hoodie and dark jeans, but there was one difference: the sleeves of her hoodie were rolled up, and she beamed as she proudly revealed the battle scars that proved to all that she is a true survivor.
Casey Lee Bio:
I am a 22-year old free spirit, learning and growing each day as I make it through my first year of teaching English at the high school level. So far I have learned that teaching can be painful at times and victorious at others, but through it all, I am learning as much as my students, if not more, and I’m excited to show up to work each day because I never know exactly what will happen.
My passion lies in trying to help my students learn that writing is a beautiful means of self-expression, not something to be scared of or avoided. I may not reach every single young person that sits in my classroom, but it is surely my aim to try.
I once heard a quote that I remember each day as I prepare to teach: “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” My goal is to equip my students with the tools they need and watch what wonderful things they will create with them.
In my spare time, I enjoy reading and writing, which is probably a prerequisite of being an English teacher. I also enjoy spending time with my wonderful fiance and family, as well as cooking and enjoying the beauty of the ocean near my home.
I hope that my story was able to bring you some clarity and joy within your own life.
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