A Teacher’s difference

My relationship with writing throughout my life has largely been to use it as an outlet for pain. I can remember having notebooks in my too-small room as young as nine and just writing juvenile poems that were saturated with all of the hurt a child with limited vocabulary could convey. As an adult reflecting on my life, and learning that stories have power I have decided to start to share my stories in hopes they might affect people in the same way others stories affect me. For years now I have been silent about my own experiences and rather just living vicariously through the stories I have been reading, the games I have been playing and the music I have been listening to. I cherish these outlets and the sense of community and belonging they universally endowe on to whoever delves into their worlds but now it’s time to break my silence.

This particular instance in my life has been prompted by a comment on my picture on Facebook this evening. I’ve slowly been acquiring more tattoos on my arms and decided I needed a new profile picture to showcase the ink I’ve been collecting. A selection of nice comments followed, but what stuck out to me was one I received from a lady who had been my teacher in fifth grade. It read

Was thinking about you today actually! Took our kids to the ski hill today and saw some former students…had a hug and a smile and was talking to a colleague about special students…. you were spoken of with great affection. Always! “

As I read these words from this wonderful lady, memories began surfacing around me as my mind recalled the stories of my 5th year in elementary school. When I reflect upon the narrative of my life, I always regard 5th grade as the turning point for myself and sense of worth. And as I was pulled back into memories of the past by my own consciousness, and all these images of those days surrounded me, I was struck by something my father had said to me a few weeks ago. He was sitting in my kitchen and we were discussing my job in the service industry, and he says. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. But I think your true gift lies in writing. I think you could share your stories and make a difference. I really think that is your calling.”

As I heard these words play back to me, I knew I had to at least share what this fifth grade year, and this teacher, did for me.

As a young girl, I always felt different. There are countless girls who feel different in their young years, but I always felt exceedingly and unquantifiably different than my peers. I didn’t fit in my own skin. I began puberty at a young age and was vehemently uncomfortable with what those changes were doing to me. Aside from the physical, my interests and hobbies, coupled with my emotional needs seemed to differ so greatly from the kids around me. I wasn’t interested in just the superficial happenings of being ten. I was afflicted with a great sense of loneliness, pain, and anger from almost as far back as I can remember. Looking back on pictures of myself at that age now, I objectively don’t look any different than anyone else. I wasn’t much bigger or smaller than anyone else. There are no jarring physical imperfections, no gangly limbs or birth defects. I was just a kid. But I hated myself. And that hurricane played on in my head and wreaked havoc with my relationships with myself, teachers, and those around me.

A ten year old doesn’t know they hate themselves. Our emotional intelligences and introspective abilities are not developed enough to recognize the self hatred blooming within us. But looking back well over a decade later, I can see that theme clearly born back then. I was a kid who never felt loved, who felt so utterly and completely distant from those around me that it felt like I was the only one who felt anything like what I was going through at all. My childhood was far from terrible. I had great, loving parents. Maybe ones that weren’t as equipped to deal with the cards they were dealt, but they were devoted and selfless when it came to both mine and my brothers needs. My brother had behavioral issues coming to the surface at this time, and this tension it caused lead his needs to, rightly, be the focus of my struggling parents. No parent is given a guidebook on how to steer a child through the things my brother was dealing with. It was a tumultuous time in our household. My parents were late having us in comparison to those around us, so in some way that just allowed another degree of separation between my peers and I.

On top of all this I must add what many already know coming into reading this. Not only would I come out as a lesbian in a few short years, and take on an entire rural population’s reaction to that, but in my early adult years I would come out as transgender. If i had had the words to describe my feeling then, and the power those labels had, and the freedom to choose my own destiny, maybe I would have felt more at ease with myself. We will never know for sure, and I would like to believe my story unfolded in the way it was supposed to.

So what happens to a ten year old child on the LGBTQ spectrum, struggliing with their self worth and identity, with a tense home life and a big, angry heart on their sleeve? Hurt, pain and a lot of mistakes along the way, that is for sure. I had trouble relating to my classmates because I was feeling raw emotions in a way bigger than most ten year olds can recall feeling. I was obsessed with listening to sad songs and reading sad books to find someone out there who was like me, who felt things like I did. Often those stories and songs were found in the worlds of adults. The only solace I found were in these escapes, and it lead to a gaping wound of loneliness that I didn’t have the means to convey to those around me. It’s difficult looking back to explain the breadth of what I was feeling. All I can say is even now at 23 I feel for that little girl that I was.

I didn’t feel like I belonged in my body, at my school, or in the family I had. How could one person feel so much rejection without ever really being rejected? How could one person feel so unloved while still being so loved? It’s a paradox of my childhood. I desperately sought affection and acceptance in any form I could find it. In many ways I feel like I was numb to myself ever being good enough for anything at all. Until one day my story was turned upside down.

For half of the year in fifth grade, we had a familiar substitute teacher filling in for our class. The woman who was to become our full time teacher was on maternity leave. So, when it was becoming time for second semester start and for this new teacher to take over, my mom and I headed to a parent-teacher conference to meet her. We went into my classroom and sat at my desk. As I was showing my mom some things I had been working on, a short, redheaded, woman turns her attention to us. She remarks that I, too am a redhead and how I must be special. I can recall this moment with perfect clarity even now. I remember looking up and seeing her for the first time. She was, in fact, a red head just like me. There aren’t many of us, and it was a similarity of kinship that began this turn in events for me. I was quite shy in this moments, because I was so afraid of showing vulnerability and being rejected, but she persisted. She made conversation with me, talked with me, and said she thought we were going to get along famously. I had never been singled out as anything but negative things before, or so it had felt, leading up to this point. If I was noticed at all. I was not a gifted athlete, I had walked away from most extracurriculars my parents put me in, due to what I now know as extreme introversion coupled with my aforementioned insecurities  and my grades never really soared due to lack of effort on my part. My confidence was never there to try. I took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t trying and not doing my best, which was far easier to deal with than if I were to try and still not do well.

The first days of her teaching our class we began to blossom a bond. This teacher took the time to listen to me. She listened to my stories, she never belittled or invalidate any of the immense pain I carried around with me. She even let me grapple with my self esteem about my physical body, by wearing hats in class when that was expressly forbidden in our school. But those hats were comfort for me, and I think she knew that, and she cared for my well being. So she let me have those little leniencies. For the first time ever, the shadow I carried around my heart started to ease up. I remember this being the first year I started forming genuine friendships. I started writing as an outlet more frequently, and I was gaining confidence in leaps and bounds. Of course, this was not quick fix for all the years of self doubt I had endured before, but if not for this teacher and her care and thought, I may never have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

I recall her support in my academic pursuits. She never once was hard on me for not reaching my full potential. She just gently prodded me along the right path, helping me to realize my own worth on my own. One day in class, we were editing another classmate’s papers and my partner complained to the teacher that my penmanship was too messy and she couldn’t understand it. Instead of chastising me for not caring to write neatly, she said to the student that Her thoughts come out so fast, she can’t write them down and keep up with them.”
I never forgot her, and it felt like finally someone saw me.

As the year wore on, and with the unyielding support of this teacher I was feeling ready to take on the next steps in my life. In my town, when you reach grade six you go to the high school. That is a big change for the kids, and without this teacher I may not have ever had the strength to go on and face the challenges that I didn’t yet know lay before me.

After a tear filled end of the year, weeks into the summer this teacher invited me to her house for lunch. My mom and I came and it felt so good to be back in her presence again. We talked and shared stories and at the end she presented me with a gift. I was so excited I couldn’t even speak. I opened it and inside was a figure of a girl holding a star in her hands. The title of the figure was “Bright Star”. She explained that it was because I was, and always would be, her bright star. That gift touched me so profoundly, and now as I write in own household as an adult, that figure sits on my bookshelf.

 

 

So I write this post to share my experiences, and to hopefully help anyone realize that they really aren’t alone in this world. Moreover, every day we live our lives we absolutely never know how our actions and our kindness is going to affect someone else. If this teacher hadn’t of saw me, I’m not even sure if I would have survived through the hard times that were to come that got me here to write this story. And of course, after this teacher commented on my photo, I wanted to wholeheartedly and sincerely thank her for what she did for me. That moment at my desk looking up to see my new teacher commenting positively about our shared red hair changed me forever. Neither she nor I knew it would. But it did. And I am eternally and deeply grateful for that.

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