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An Open Letter to My First Grade Teacher

Photograph by Twenty20

Dear Mrs. Poe,

I don’t remember the name of the city in Washington State my family lived in when I was assigned to your first grade classroom. It could have been Bellevue, or Lynnwood, or maybe even Seattle. I don’t even remember the name of the elementary school where you worked, and since I don’t have anyone to ask, I suppose that information will always be lost to me.

What I do remember was how you—a tall, chestnut-haired woman who loved the Peanuts Gang—reached through an abyss to show me kindness and love, and how your efforts to help me were paid back by my legal guardian demanding you be fired.

You couldn’t have known that by the time I landed in your classroom I’d previously been to two other schools, moved to eight different homes in seven different cities in two different states and had lived with three different families. There was no record of the abuse and neglect I’d experienced throughout my young life, or any indication by my name on your list of students that I was a troubled child.

The truth was that I was damaged goods before I ever walked into your class. I don’t know how long it took for you to realize this, but I know that soon enough, you did.

What I clearly remember in your classroom, aside from show-and-tell, playing “who stole the cookie from the cookie jar” and listening to you as you told the class on more than one occasion how much you loved the Peanuts characters, was how I would act out violently when told to take a seat or do a task. I remember how I’d push students to the ground, slam my desk, and occasionally, flip over tables and chairs—sometimes when students were still sitting in them. I must’ve terrified you during those times, how could I have not?

What I remember the most wasn’t receiving time-outs, detentions or suspensions; things I know I clearly deserved. Rather, it was the unfettered kindness and compassion you showed me.

In the midst of my greatest fits, you’d pull me close and help me calm down. You’d set boundaries for me, but you never shamed me. You never called me dirty names, you never lashed out at me. Maybe you realized it before I ever did, but these were the things that I was expecting. As a child who had been hit and was often terrified of adults, I was hastening the outcome, pushing you to what I believed was the inevitable: violence and hatred. It was a cycle I had learned young, and was all too willing to perpetuate.

Do you remember, Mrs. Poe, the day I came to school broken-hearted? I couldn’t hold-in my tears, even though I tried. The night before I’d done something that upset my legal guardian and his boyfriend. The outcome had been a shouted promise, repeated throughout the night, that I was being sent away to an orphanage for girls. It may not have been the first time they told me I was being sent away, but it was the first time I realized what that meant, and the thought of being alone terrified me.

You walked with me, hand in hand, to the school library while telling me that I would be OK and not to worry. You were so kind in that moment. You showed me a book called “Madeline” by Ludwig Bemelmans. The book was about a girl who was sent away to boarding school and how even though she was scared, she made friends and had fun. That book took away my terror, and your compassion set my young heart at ease.

I don’t know how long it took from that moment, but later, maybe weeks, maybe just days, you arrived at my apartment unannounced. In your hands was a giant red square pillow with long black tassels on the corners. The center was a scene with Woodstock and Snoopy. The pillow was just for me, you said.

My brother, who was nine at the time, and I were home alone that day, as we often were after school while our legal guardians worked. We weren’t supposed to open the door and we definitely weren’t allowed to let someone inside, but I did both anyway.

I remember sitting with you on my couch and talking. I remember how suddenly safe I felt and how I wished you could always be there with me.

You came by one more time, again unannounced, and sat with me. I felt special, as if out of all the kids in the class – I was your favorite. Your visits made me want to be better in school, to behave and make you smile. I don’t know if I was successful, but I know I tried.

Then, my legal guardian discovered the pillow. He demanded to know where it came from and of course, I told him. I didn’t know that by doing so, I would get you in trouble.

I remember how angry he was when he called the school to speak with the principal.

“She has no business in my f***ing home!” he shouted.

I don’t remember much after that, but I know he was angry, and I know that I felt like I’d betrayed you by telling the truth, even though you never once asked me to lie.

The next day at school, you weren’t there. You’d been replaced by a substitute, and although occasionally I saw you, you were never my teacher again.

My legal guardian had boasted, numerous times, that he got you fired for “poking your nose in our business.” He’d smile when he said that, and it made me hate him.

I don’t think you were actually fired. I think, if anything, you were removed from the class because back then schools were hesitant to interfere in the personal lives of their students, and the administration, however much they might have disliked my legal guardian, had to take his side.

After all of these years, I wanted you to know that I never forgot how gentle you were, and how important you made me feel. I held on to that pillow you gave me for as long as I could, until, after I moved away from home at 16, my legal guardian threw everything I owned in the trash. I was most sad about losing that pillow, because it came to represent hope, and that no matter how hard or scary things got in my life, there would always be someone out there who cared.

Mrs. Poe, I don’t know if you’re still alive, or if you’d even remember me, but on the off chance that you might read this one day, please know, you left an indelible mark on me. For the rest of my life, I will remember how far kindness and gentleness go in the life of a child, and how it’s OK to take risks if it means saving another.

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