A love letter to my children's teachers.
Picking up the pieces.
It was a frozen winter day, a day encrusted in frost and crystalline air. My sweet girl sat nervous, red-cheeked with anticipation, next to her best friend Vanessa. They pulled their brand-new winter caps over their heads; hers was a pink beanie so big it looked like a Smurf hat. Her dad and I were going to leave work early and come see her, there with all of her little friends, nestled onto the mat showing off how hard they had worked, their sweet, off-key singing, loud and joyful. We promised her, and she knew we would be there, and she told you and all of her friends that you would all need to wait for us.
But they rehearsed and lined up and waited and the other parents arrived and we never came. Somehow between the jobs and the writing and the side hustles and the three kids and the holiday obligations and the sheer exhaustion of life, we got mixed up about the time, and by the time we arrived at the school, the songs were over. The sweet little elves had sung their songs of Feliz Navidad, and my girl had broken into a thousand pieces, sobbing uncontrollably, heartsick, and we weren’t there.
You were there.
You hugged her like your own daughter, swept up her tears and brushed them away. You were the one who loved her when we were not available, just as you have done so many times. You helped her cope with our mistake, loved her unconditionally through her six-year-old heartbreak sobs.
When we finally arrived, you gathered up the kids and made them excited again even though they were tired and all partied out, got them to perform the entire concert a second time just for us.
But not for us.
You did it for our daughter.
For all my love of language, you are the one who has labored long hours, giving her the gift of writing and literature, the capacity to step into another plane of reality and embrace worlds beyond the world she lives in, worlds where possibilities bend and curve to her will and futures are wide, gaping horizons.
When she was running on the playground and stumbled, face against the hard sand-covered earth, the burning pain and metallic copper taste, the knocked-out tooth, brick-red blood down the front of her puppy dog shirt, you were the one who took her to the nurse, got her a new shirt, helped her smile again, brushed the gravel off and made her whole again.
She runs hot and cold like an old faucet, but you see her. You see her magic, her gifts, her whimsy, her depth like a dark, wild river. You see it all.
Every morning, you are happy to greet her. On days when you feel broken and worn like boots or ground down to nothing, you greet my girl like a friend. She loves you, your warm face, your calm voice, your unyielding patience. You give her everything. You multiply your love and compassion times two dozen, stretch yourself like wide, welcome arms.
It was a thick, muggy day, the kind where frustration swirls in the air like particles of dust. My precious son was wearing thin like the tread on an old tire, touching things, touching everything, tapping his pencil against his desk louder and louder until the ignoring became an effort in itself. He stood and crossed the room for something, and every person he passed he touched out of compulsion--desk, back, book, desk, shoulder, touch, touch, touch.
I would have understood if you’d snapped at him after you asked him to work for the tenth time, but you never did.
You calmly held your ground, throwing out math in the middle of a minefield. When he started to float away into the stratosphere, drifting further and further from you and the class, you grabbed him by the foot and anchored him with fractions and decimals and grace.
And then, just like that, he detonated, atoms spinning wild radiation around the room; he screamed, knocked over a desk, his lanky limbs flapping uncontrollably as you tried to isolate him so he would not harm himself or anyone else.
You are more than I will ever be. I’ve seen him that way, but never in a room full of variables, never interrupting something so important with so many others to tend to at the same time.
You called upon your instinct and your training and even when you were lost like me, you believed in him.
You never stopped believing through any of it that he would someday grow up and have his own apartment and job and maybe soulmate.
You never stopped believing that he would learn to divide by 8 or 83 or 832.
You never stopped seeing the man inside him, past the label of autism spectrum disorder into the complex and beautiful humanity of his soul.
It was a bluebird day, a day where pale yellow sunlight dances across faces and warms skin like soft, fresh bread.
My artist was dreaming absently, floating around the top of the room about a half a meter above the geography you were laying down.
You spent hours planning that lesson, lovingly, painstakingly, to deliver to a less-than-captive audience, and there in the front row, third seat from the right, wrapped up in the deliciousness of print on paper, a world of pure imagination bound in a thick spine was my firstborn. You were dividing the continent into Northeast, Southeast, West, Midwest, Southwest, but he was playing Quidditch at Hogwarts, slipping back across Platform 9¾ and Diagon Alley, lost behind long tangles of thick, sandy hair.
You nudged him back into the pond like a mother duck again and again.
When his summaries were covered in not only words and thoughts but also strange, oozing, macabre pencil-drawn creatures, adorable and dark at the same time, you loved him all the more for his brilliant, wandering mind.
You encourage him to write from his own imagination, to weave visions into worlds and tales like a mage. You ignite the fire in his quiet spirit.
On the many long days when he is the child who is less seen because the squeaky wheel gets the grease and he is not squeaky but chill like a misty lagoon, you notice him.
You are there when his head pulses and his eyes are sandpaper dry. You are there when he lights up the room with his energy out of nowhere.
You are my children’s teachers, but you are so much more. You are with them many days more of their waking hours than we are.
You love them unconditionally. You give them more than you have to give over and over, drawing from unseen courage and compassion and kindness.
You nurture their heartaches, their injuries, their successes. You bless them with the breadth of your knowledge, comfort them through disappointment, stoke the flames of their curiosity, gift them with belief in themselves. And should the day ever come when the unimaginable happens, we know that you would place your own precious lives between our children and harm without a second thought or hesitation.
Any of you could take the lectern of college academia with the knowledge you own and speak with authority, but you choose to spend your wisdom on our collective future by gifting it to our youth.
You are their counselors, teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, and support staff, past, present, and to come.
We are forever grateful for the role you play in our beloved children’s lives. We can never repay you, but we will gladly stand beside you in asking our elected representatives to grant you a wage more worthy of the endless gifts you give to our children.
Because Whitney was right. Our children are our future, and that future begins with you
A note to my readers:
Most of our children’s educators have earned well beyond a bachelor’s degree, logging countless hours of professional development over time, and take home between $1800 to $2000 a month. As a degreed support staff with graduate-level education, I am paid in the very top of my pay range at $12.95 per hour, about $850 per paycheck. It is not enough money to support my family, and I am not paid in the summer at all. Like many of the teachers I work with, I depend on SNAP and Soonercare to support my family.
Our children’s school faculty and staff are not merely clocking in to collect a paycheck. They do what they do out of love and the belief that they are investing in our collective future. They give everything they can for our kids, yet they are the worst paid in the country. Putting money into education keeps our teachers from leaving this state, not so they can drive fancy cars or live high on the hog, but so they can feed their families without having to lean on government assistance.
I encourage each of you to make a phone call today to one of your state legislators and let them know how grateful you are for the role our educators play in our children’s lives and to remind them what our children mean to the future of Oklahoma.
Thanks for listening. Much love to you all.