An Open Letter to my 8th Graders
Dear 8th Grade,
Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to be your teacher. Thank you for loving me unconditionally, and forgiving me freely. Ours has not been a relationship where I have been only a teacher and you have been a student, but vice versa – you were my teachers, and daily I was your student. I was challenged to learn, study, and grow in my knowledge of people, places, and things. I cannot be grateful enough that I was given the privilege of knowing each and every one of you.
At the beginning of this year I told you that what I love about teaching 8th grade is that I am given the gift of letting you go. As much as I would like to hold on, and keep you here, letting you go means that you are ready. My telling the world that you are ready to move on requires saying goodbye. I have never been fond of or liked goodbyes, so I will say, “Fantastic human beings who captured my heart, you will always have first place as my students. No other group will compare to the Class of 2018. A class full of spunk, personality, and individuals who will fill the world as spotlights of good. Shine, beautiful people, shine bright!”
You are always building your brain capacity. Education is not something that just happens in school, learning happens everywhere. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. taught from a jail cell, Cesar Chavez dropped out of school at 15 and learned while being a migrant worker, Justin Dart Jr. considered himself a “super-loser,” until he lost use of his legs due to polio. Women including Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks did their best work by sitting down, others such as Shirley Chisholm and Dolores Huerta by standing up. These people were activists and organizers cut from very different cloths. What made them similar is that they all found their cause. Find your cause. Find your why, and you will learn, and teach others, and in turn have an impact.
History is the story of us. It is the story of people and power. Continue to ask yourself critical questions, “Whose voice matters? What stories do we tell? Who tells the stories?” This year you explored the truth of the African Proverb, “Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” You asked if heroes and villains can be one and the same. You disputed facts that people said were indisputable. You were noble-minded, fair, and worked in pursuit of justice. I charge you 8th grade to always keep moving forward, go higher, and dig deeper. You are the people this world needs – men and women full of integrity, kindness, respect, curiosity, and resilience.
There are 19 things I never want you to forget:
I love each of you. I want your best. I cannot wait to hear what you are up to. Class of 2018, I expect GREAT things.
Ms. St. Jean
I'm not a very public person, I do not share my feelings easily. Writing changes that. One of the first letters I ever wrote was to my mom expressing my displeasure at something I felt she had done wrong towards me. I did not have the ability to speak my truth, so I wrote it. My mom kept that letter, and once showed it to me when I was in my late teens. Today, I want to share about the struggle of being unapologetically myself.
This was written in 2016, but is applicable today.
I think that as special educators we are given the opportunity to not only practice inclusion with students, but with other professionals within the educational space. We may not necessarily agree with all practices considered inclusive, but there should be a willingness to examine beliefs, attitudes, and values in light of another’s position. My fear is that I will be perceived as “too emotional,” “angry,” “aggressive,” or compoundingly as the “angry black woman,” a caricature perceived to be reality, as perpetuated by American popular media. I am also tall. I speak boldly. My face is sometimes called “poker”. And I like to think I am smart. In a recent Humans of New York post, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton states:
I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena.
I can relate. The wall is protection. Protection against the flood of emotions that may rise when faced with racism, sexism, ageism, colorism. You learn to control your spirit, which is not a bad thing, and build a wall around the city known as your life. A problem I have been facing, not simply in the educational sector but in general is having critical conversations. How do I communicate well with men and women who are uncertain, or even threatened by my presence, without compromising who I am? Over the past few weeks, I have been a participant in a situation where I feel as if my identity as an intelligent black woman is being called into question. For example, my name was written out for me. (I thought I knew how to spell.) When I make a statement, it is immediately questioned, and once confirmed, there is a small shocking nod of surprise. (Wow! Who knew! With a dash of awe, as the salt, and wonder, the pepper.)
What I am not comfortable confronting in person, I find easier to dole out on paper.
I was going to send you some version of this email, but a wise friend stopped me. She said something akin to, “Why add fuel to the fire?” She is right, you know. Why instigate a conversation where my concerns will be brushed aside? Why use my precious pearls of words on someone unwilling to understand? This is kind of like the time I discovered that my mom could not help with the ferocious itching of my eczema when I was three. I still remember thinking, “Mommy can’t help, I’ll just stay in bed.” Like the eczema you win. Like the eczema you too will clear away, leaving smoother skin in its place. My life has indeed had rough patches, but the waves of the shore beat against the rocks leaving smooth pebbles in its place.
No one goes to the beach and picks up the jagged edged rocks, they pick up the smooth stones created by storms. The storms communicate roughly, leaving in their wake objects that are better for its passing.
You think you know me, but you do not. I see the way you check out my outfit and talk about how practical yours is. I hear the shift in tone when there is condescension. I see the undercover undermining. I have been down this road before. Same street, different name. When you ask that I sit out of a section of science, and ELA it was and is my perception that I am being excluded from full participation. You acted like you were helping, but you was straight blocking . I cannot help but come to the conclusion that I am indeed the decisive element. And the conclusion is indeed frightening. So I put my belief in something bigger and better, whose name is Love and has been Love since the foundation of the world. I put my belief in One who accepts me in all that I am.
Often with students who have disabilities, assumptions are made regarding ability, and as Jorgensen writes (2010, pg. 28). Through the years people have looked at me and decided many, many things. “Trust your gut,” they say, I say, “Trust your biases more.”
From the beginning, at that first meeting, you were so bent on proving yourself, that my interests were not taken into consideration. Did you ever consider, that I was trusting those who told me you were good, and guess what you are? You are great with kids, but lousy with adults, especially adults you try to figure out. Ah! The age of Google makes everyone bigger than they are, and pretty soon we are all puffer fish in an ocean of competition, vying to see who can puff out the most. “Puff, Puff, Puff,” and the house comes down. It’s all a house of cards, and magicians’ mirrors, and there is no Wizard of Oz. Didn’t you get the memo?
I do not say this to lay blame but to speak about ways in which communication can be improved. Discussions take the full involvement of two parties, not the decisions of one. In the classroom, of life, feeling as if a teacher who has the gift of providing education is condescending and dictatorial reduces and eliminates the possibility of learning. I see that it has been decided that I will no longer participate in certain classes. If I am disappointed it is in the fact that communication has not been clear. I do my best to say what I mean and mean what I say. If the Martha I am learning to love again threatens you, I am #sorrynotsorry . You see, I need to believe in me again. I need to believe that I am not a failure. I need to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, because if I don’t the students divinely placed in my life won’t either.
Thanks for reading through this letter, even though you may never receive it. I wrote it more for me, and faced this conflict with faith.
Ms. St. Jean
Native New Yorker teaching and living the middle school life, using this site to keep it 100. My students are the embodiment of joy.