A Teacher’s Fringe Benefit

#SOL16 Day 15Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 5.11.16 PM

I work in five buildings in five days. I often wonder how much of an impact I can make when I feel stretched so thin. Today I got a hint.  I was working at the middle school, sitting at my “Dilbert” (cubicle) and working on a presentation for Friday’s workshop. An ed tech approached me and asked, “One of our students, Talia*, wanted to see you. Is this a good time?”

I knew Talia since she was in elementary school.  She is one of those kids that you just want to take home with you. Her life was hard. She was quiet to the point of being withdrawn and would never speak up in class. During her 5th grade year I partnered with her teacher to work on a poetry unit.  It was there that Talia would quietly pass me her poems.  They were dark, and raw, and heartfelt.  I knew I couldn’t offer her quick praise, she needed to hear some specifics for it to be meaningful.

You are really trying to capture a mood here.  Your choice of words makes me feel despair at first but there is a sense of hope in this last line.”

She looked down at her paper. “Is it any good?”

I held her paper to my heart. “It’s more than good.  It’s so YOU.  Your voice is all through this piece. Do you want to give it a title?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“Well, one of my very favorite poets never gave her poems titles. She didn’t feel comfortable sharing her poetry with others either.  You remind me a lot of Emily Dickinson.”

Through the rest of the unit, Talia shared each poem with me.  I’d point out a technique I thought was strong and try to offer a lift to expand her craft.  “I want you to think about your line breaks in this next poem.  Poets are intentional with how they want to structure their poems…”  The next day she would show me.  “I want them to notice this idea so I put this word all by itself…”

The following year Talia shared with me the novel she was writing.  Her fan fiction version of a Twilight-type story was gripping, and at times a bit mature. I worried at times about the events in her life that were clearly influencing her writing.  The summer she left elementary school I sent her a book of Emily Dickinson poems and a writers notebook. At various times I also sent postcards to encourage her writing.  She wasn’t the most skilled writer I’ve worked with, but she was one of the few in which I believed writing could change her life. I wanted to encourage her to continue to work out problems/plots,  explore feelings, and find a creative outlet for her hopes and fears.

Now it is a few years later and Talia walks over to my desk.  “I wanted you to have this.” She hands me a paper titled Tear the Veil.  “I wrote this for my science teacher. We were supposed to research a mammal.  She thought it was pretty funny.”  I started reading the piece. It was a biography of her favorite band.  She had researched the band members and concluded with why they were so important to her life, in helping her to get through some tough times.

Get it?  They’re humans, they’re mammals!”

Oh I got it, and I’m so glad her science teacher did, too. “Talia, you’re a riot! So does your teacher know if you understand mammals?”

“Yeah. And I told her I would research them!  I want you to have this copy. I thought you’d like it.”

I did. We talked a bit about how middle school was going.  Not great. Not terrible.  She talked about her anxiety and an upcoming doctors appointment her mom hopes will help. She talked about friend troubles that she hopes are better now.  She told me she is still writing.

I walked her back to her class. “You can share your writing with me anytime, Talia.”

Okay.”  she smiled.

And That, my friends, is a teachers’ fringe benefit.


*(Talia is not her real name)

10 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Fringe Benefit

  1. What a beautiful slice! Your words remind me of the impact and power teachers can have. I think this line is especially profound: “She wasn’t the most skilled writer I’ve worked with, but she was one of the few in which I believed writing could change her life.” Thanks for sharing and keep up the amazing work!

  2. Paula, I have have two compliments for you. First, I love the way you write. You reconstruct conversations in a way that makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping. Secondly, and most important, you exemplify the word “Teacher”. Clearly, you understand that teaching children is more important than any subject. These moments truly are the fringe benefits of teaching. I have a feeling you will have many more!

  3. This is beautiful! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those “certain students”. Clearly all of our students over the years have worth & value in our lives, but there are still those few with whom the connection runs a little deeper, you feel a bit more responsible for, and it’s nice to get a chance to follow up with them & for them to let you know how you mattered!

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