An Open Letter to my High School English Teacher

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You may not have been the first teacher to identify me as a fraud, but you were the first to make me feel like one – and this may not have been a bad thing. You see, prior to your class, I had only read one chapter book cover-to-cover since fifth grade. It was The Outsiders (1967) and I was a sophomore when I read it. I don’t think anyone really knew what a struggle it was for me to read and write. I got by academically with a bit of a photographic memory. Odd for someone who struggled to see words and graphics as most others see them represented on paper.  So when it came to your Senior English class and the plethora of classics you required us to read, I tried my usual routine of pretending to read in class and giving minimal effort at home. But you were on to me, and accepting mediocrity wasn’t what you were about.

Hawthorne, Steinbeck, Thoreau. Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare. Homer, Twain, Austen, and so many others. I hated these books at the time. I also hated you for pushing me so hard to read them. Written well beyond my comprehension level, these novels revealed my lack of stamina; they demonstrated to me how the accumulation of years pretending to be a good student had really hurt my ability to perform when it counted. You wanted us to be ready for college and beyond, yet for the first time in my life the mirror was held up and I came to see myself as the fraudulent student you knew me to be. And this hurt. I didn’t care about symbolism or author’s purpose, and I certainly didn’t believe the crap we discussed ad nauseam about a senseless turtle crossing a road in The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Existentialism wasn’t my thing at the time. I wasn’t ready to think deeply. I just wanted to get by doing the least possible. But that wasn’t enough for you. You wouldn’t accept my work if it wasn’t up to par. You made me re-do countless assignments because you thought I could do better. You were a colossal pain, and as I look back on it now, I am forever grateful.

My first writing assignment in English 101 at ASU was handed back with a huge ‘D’ on it. That English instructor didn’t allow me to get by with substandard work either. I remember channeling you frequently, and usually with a grimace, when written assignments were due those first few years of college. Although reading was definitely challenging for me, you taught me the basics of being a good writer. I was required to take a writing assessment prior to getting into the College of Education, and I remember the anxiety as my eyes became fixated on the blank paper in front of me. What would I write about? How would I organize my thoughts? How could I express emotion and knowledge simultaneously within a powerful, yet succinctly written narrative? I thought of you again, cranked the piece out, and when results came back, I scored at the 99th percentile. Me? Yes. Me! It was the first time I really thought of myself as a writer, and I had you to thank.

It’s been thirty-five years since that senior year in high school. (This is the part where I was going to write, “Man, how time flies!”, but had this been an assignment I turned in, you would have written with your evil red pen that this expression is much too cliché).  We re-connected several years ago on Facebook, and as we did so, I often wondered if you were curious about how I was able to make it through not only a Bachelors and Master’s program, but also a Doctoral program. Me. The one who was a fraud. The one who didn’t read. The one who didn’t want to work hard and apply herself. Well, I want you to know you had a lot to do with my academic success. You pushed me. You propelled me. You forced me to read and write complex text when I wasn’t motivated to do so. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you taught me not to settle for mediocrity; especially from myself.

In my role as a school superintendent, I am a staunch advocate for authentic literacy. I push hard for practices that engage students early and often in reading, writing, and talking about text. I want students to read rich bodies of rigorous and complex text, and I also want each and every teacher to create the conditions for students to fall in love with reading and writing. I see such value in literacy, and believe it to be the lynchpin to a better quality of life. Whether one uses the skills of literacy to advance in their education, to gain information about a topic of interest, or to simply get swept away into a different time and place with intriguing characters that enrich the imagination; reading provides a vast array of benefits. Better memory, concentration, stress reduction, mental stimulation, and tranquility are just a few of the advantages folks reap when they read. I also want teachers to recognize when students are fraudulently trying to pass as readers and call them on it. With high expectations and the belief that only the best work is acceptable, these students may stand a chance just as I did.

Literacy is the great equalizer. It offers a vernacular that can open doors, and provides the opportunity to see issues from multiple perspectives. In learning how to read critically, we become actively engaged in the act of questioning and evaluating arguments and evidence that help inform our opinions about the things that matter most to us. Reading can help us become the better version of ourselves simply because it provides us quiet time to think, process, and reflect. Some of the world’s greatest leaders are voracious readers, and I want to be sure the students in my school district have those same opportunities that begin with a strong foundation in literacy.

I know I wasn’t the best or the brightest, and I know you may have questioned my ability to step it up and make it as a reader, writer, and contributing member of society. Yet, here I am acknowledging your contribution to my success and the subsequent ripple effect it has had on the lives of countless others. Indeed, the impact of a teacher is vast; enormously immense, and at times, deeply profound. Your role as an educator has been important, and I want to be sure I express my deepest gratitude.

Sincerely,

JoEtta

Author: leadershipsoup

I am a learning leader, educator, and equity advocate. I am also the proud Superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District located in Central Arizona. I believe we need to empower students and families by dismantling deficit ideologies and embracing practices that are truly inclusive in nature. I look forward to learning with others as we embark on this journey together.

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for sharing. My high school college Prep English teacher opened me to the world of reading and writing as well, more so writing. But with the pressures of life at home and an illness, I dropped out of school my freshman year. When I returned the following year, I was put in a regular English class. With lots of hard work and a couple college classes, I managed to graduate with my class. After I left school my freshman year, I sat at home and wrote about whatever and everything. My love for reading didn’t come until I was hired by you at Brisas and I met Kathy. She gave me a book to read and I haven’t stopped since. I try to write from time to time; the encouragement from friends who say they love my writing is what makes me want to write more. One day, I will write more. Thank you for sharing your story and it makes my heart happy knowing we have another connection.

    Your Friend,
    Renita

    Like

    1. Renita, your writing is beautiful. Often rhythmical and poetic. Maybe you could start publishing some of your writing in a blog. I have a friend who only publishes poems. I know someone else who publishes short whimsical stories. A blog can be only for you if you want — until you’re brave enough to share with the world or whom ever you feel like trusting.

      We are kindred spirits in the written expression sort of way. Let’s continue to encourage one another!

      Like

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