Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Open Letter To the Teacher Who Taught me How to Live

 I have always loved school. As a child, I greeted every summer with a bit of sadness to have to leave the classroom for three months. I have many beloved former teachers. However, I only have one favorite teacher-- a woman that reached into her soul to teach me far more than the Language Arts lessons that she was paid to teach every day.

A bit of backstory before I tell you about the teacher that changed my life-- when I was in seventh grade my best friend, Jacki, died in a car accident.  I was brought to my knees with crushing grief and sadness. As a junior high student that had never experienced the death of someone my own age, I was frozen in my grief and unable to cry or work through her death. When thoughts of Jacki would come bubbling up, I would push them immediately back down. No one had taught me how to mourn and so I simply moved on with my life with all of my feelings bottled up inside me, the pressure rising with each passing week. That year passed in a blur and I went on to my eighth grade year still frozen in grief and with a torrent of unshed tears inside.

Language Arts was always my favorite class as I was (and am) a voracious reader and persistent writer. Mrs. Wood was my teacher that year and we bonded immediately over a shared love of the written word. I did not know in those first days that we would end up sharing so much more.

On the first day of class, Mrs. Wood handed us each a journal that we would write in and she would periodically read. Some days we would write about simple, everyday topics and other days we were allowed to write about whatever we wanted. I loved journaling and felt a sense of freedom with every word that passed from my pen onto the page. As the months passed, my trust with her grew, as I felt connected with her through her kind written responses to me in the margins, scribbled in red pen. I began to look forward to the days that we would pass our journals back to her in her wire basket, knowing that I was passing what was in my soul over to a teacher that would treat my words with respect.

After a few months I began, finally, to write about Jacki—how much I missed her, my memories of her and my sadness at the great loss.  There was a rush of emotions that began to flow out of me onto the page. I was voicing for the very fist time the pain of losing my friend, a pain that I had not yet begin to work through. I struggled not to cry in the classroom as I allowed the pain to flow onto the page. 

Days after I submitted my journal with my writing about Jacki inside,  I arrived to find the other students being shuffled out of the classroom for an assembly. Mrs. Wood kindly asked me to stay behind with her. I was flummoxed and was a bit worried that I was in trouble. I was a good student and had never been in trouble before and my mind swum with all the imagined things that I could have done.

She sat down facing me, our knees nearly touching as we sat on the tiny student chairs. She shared with me her own deep pain from when she had lost her young and beloved son Jonathan years ago. She did not hide the depths of her pain and cried -- tears soaking her clothing until she was left damp and disheveled.  I was humbled and in shock as she shared the story of her great loss, speechless to be in the presence of such pain. I was honored that an adult would trust me, a child, with such powerful emotions. 

Then, her story complete, she asked me to share the story of my own loss. I know now that if she hadn't shared her own story first, I would never have been brave enough to tell her the depths of my own pain.  I told her of my sweet friend and my memories of her, of how much I missed her. For the very first time since her death, I found the tears shake loose inside of me. I broke down and I wept while Mrs. Wood held me and assured me that it was okay to cry. I do not know how long we sat there, intertwined as my tears fell on her shoulder and hers fell on mine—it seemed, at once, like only a second and many years had passed.

After we cried together, we sat quietly and she talked softly of the things that I could do to help manage my grief. She asked me if I would promise to come to her if I was ever struggling in any way. I promised her and knew that I could trust her with anything, for she had shared with me the deepest pain of her soul with me.

That fall day(and all of the days after in that school year), I was taught how to mourn, a skill that should be innate in a human soul but somehow is not. She taught me how to manage uncomfortable emotions and the coping skills that I found that day are still used today. I still journal, allow myself to cry, scream into my pillows, run at breakneck speed until the anger is spent and seek help when I need it. Life is full of suffering and the mourning of loss and those lessons, the knowledge of how to simply survive great heartache, have served me again and again in my life. I know today that I would not have been able to undertake a career in pediatric nursing if I had not been given the tools to cope with my own suffering and the suffering of those around me.  I had been given a firm foundation to set my life upon.

I left that day feeling lighter than I had for a year, on a path of healing. What I had realized that day is that many teachers can teach knowledge, but the true teachers are those who use their lives to teach us how to live. I am thankful everyday that I was given Mrs. Wood to teach me how to share my life with others and live a life of meaning. I will never forget her and remain forever changed by the depth and courage of her teachings.

That day my teacher lit a lamp for me, a lamp lit with the fire of her own suffering, so that she could light the way for me to find my way out of the darkness. I am forever grateful. 


  1. I absolutely love this connection that was made. So important to both of you!

  2. She sounds like a wonderful teacher