You found me on my lunch break on Thursday and asked for a book you read your Freshmen year in my class, The Diary of a Part Time Indian. You explained you were going to do a Banned Book research project for AP Lit. At first I was confused when you needed the book, but you said you needed it then. I almost handed you my key to my room and I almost let you walk to my class by yourself. But I’m glad I didn’t, I’m glad I walked with you. I’m glad I broke the rules and left my lunch duty.
I asked you about AP and what you had been learning that day. I wish I hadn’t asked you such trivial questions. Who the hells cares what you were learning in AP that day? The conversation felt awkward and strained.
Not like it used to. Not like when you would study for AP World every morning in my room to catch up on homework you hadn’t done yet because of basketball games and track meets. Not when you and Eric use to dance and laugh in my room waiting for basketball practice to start. Y’all never studied but always laughed telling me how Coach had yelled at you on the court about this or that.
I so wish in that moment I had been a safe place for you. That I hadn’t asked you about your AP classes. Who the hell cares? I wish I had looked in your eyes and asked, “How are you, really?” Little did I know that you were drowning and you didn’t give a damn about Talking about your Banned Book project. You were barely staying afloat.
Remember when you and your friends stayed late one day after school to watch ITs A Wonderful Life before Christmas Break? Remember, George Bailey and the bridge? Remember how you loved that film. Remember the message “No man is a failure who has friends.” You have SO many friends. So many different students from all background. That makes you rich, richer than you knew.
S. found me yesterday and said, “Mrs Johnson, he was my only friend on the basketball team.” And then cried into his hands. You have people in your corner from so many walks of life. And some felt you were their only cheerleader.
You are not a failure. With girls. As a student. As a son. You had so much life to live.
I got out your letter you wrote yourself for graduation and seeing the unopened letter broke my heart into pieces. Seeing your boxy, quirky handwriting. You should have opened it. You should have been opening it walking across the stage at Stegeman knowing you were going D1 for highjump. You should have dabbed across that stage knowing you fulfilled the promise you made to yourself on your blog, that you would get out of Athens. You should have learned how to sing Halo in Russian and gone to another Beyoncé concert.
I’m sorry I wasn’t a safe space for you on Thursday. I’m sorry I gave into putting that academic pressure on you and boiling you down to class rank and GPA. Your teachers didn’t love you for that, anyway. They loved your heart, your passion and that slight smile you gave when you looked off to decide how you were going to respond. We loved how we could make fun of you because you always made fun of yourself. We loved you for the way the whole class loved you because you made them laugh, made them smile and made them feel known.
I promise from now on I’m not going to ask stupid questions to kids about classes and grades and rank. I promise you I’m going to ask the questions that matter.
Are you in love? Has someone broke your heart? How are your parents? How is your sister? Are your dreams still alive? Have you listened to any good songs lately? Why don’t you study every morning in my room anymore? Where is your safe space? Are you hanging out with your bestfriends?
I’m gonna be a better teacher because of you. I want to continue to be that safe spot for anyone who needs that. I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll miss you forever. I’ll never stop grieving that I can’t hand you this graduation letter. You had the brightest future of any student I had ever taught.