A Teacher’s Word

I don’t remember her name. I don’t even remember what she looked like. All I remember is that I was feeling alone, ugly, and abandoned during my sophomore year when school pictures arrived. As my homeroom teacher gave me the pictures she said, “I don’t think I have ever seen such a good school picture. You are so photogenic.”

I don’t remember her name. I don’t even remember what she looked like, but I vividly remember what I looked like and I remember how she made me feel. I was wearing a blue sweater, my hair, though in the midst of the 80s, was flat and feathered, parted in the middle, and my face had little makeup.

Throughout high school, like most adolescents, I felt ugly and out of style. My family didn’t spend money on trendy clothes or salons and excessive hair products. I didn’t even know how to make my hair Eighties Tall, so the Seventies Feather was the best I could do. On that day, however, neither my hair style nor my clothes mattered. For the first time since childhood, I considered the idea that I might be pretty.

To this day, that moment is the prettiest I believe I have ever felt.

All of this reminiscing was brought about due to a class discussion I had with one of my classes this week. They made me wonder if we teachers realize the long-lasting impact of our words.

High school teachers, in particular, have an amazing opportunity to spread positivity into the psyche of the students they teach. I am 44 years old and I still remember what my homeroom teacher said about my class picture.

Likewise, I’ve never forgotten a hurtful comment that was made by my 9th grade English teacher just a year before sophomore pictures were made. I was having some difficulty with Romeo and Juliet, but I was so excited to be reading it. Perhaps I was overzealous because I remember asking a lot of questions during class. One day I went to my teacher to see if she would recommend that I be moved out of the Tech Prep classes and into the CP class track because I wanted to be prepared for college. This well-meaning teacher told me that I wasn’t “college material.” She was only trying to help direct my path. She knew my dad wanted me to be a secretary and she knew that I had difficulty understanding the foreign concepts (and language) of Shakespeare and other literature that we had studied. She told me that I was a very “literal thinker” and would find the abstract nature of the college classroom too challenging.

I didn’t go to Winthrop to become a teacher for 10 years after that. Even today, after earning a bachelor’s degree, a masters in Education, teaching at York Tech, and beginning another graduate program, I sometimes wonder if I have fooled someone and that maybe I am not college material after all.

I know there is no logic to that way of thinking, and I never stay in that thought pattern for very long, but after I have conversations with my students like the one I had this week, I want to try to fix the problem. I want to get a huge megaphone and shot from the top of the earth for all to hear: “Our subject matter may not matter to our students as it does to us, but the words we use with them sometimes mean more than we can comprehend. Speak truthfully, but speak kindly, and remember that students will grow up and change a lot after they leave the high school classroom. Don’t stymie their growth with callous words.”

I’ll never be able to thank my sophomore homeroom teacher, nor will I ever show my freshman English teacher how wrong she was, but I hope that I can remind teachers everywhere of the importance of their words, because teacher, believe it or not, your words matter.

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