Teaching on Roller Coaster Days
By NANCY PATRICK
In the midst of COVID restrictions, racial unrest across the country, and national political upheaval, I find my days full of frustration, emotional ups and downs, confusion, and sheer exhaustion. I do realize that many share my symptoms of long-term anxiety, fear, and worry. Some days feel long and useless while others seem filled with unpleasant news that stoke dread.
When I experience these negative days, I desperately need something to counter the sad feelings I have. I had one of those unexpected and delightful events happen recently. Although I often consider cancelling my Facebook account (one of the reasons for my sad days), I hang on to it because it has become my main communication tool with several people I care about. One particular day, I noticed a private message to me in the Messenger section where people can try to contact someone with whom they are not “friends” on the site.
The first words, “Mrs. Patrick,” made my heart skip a beat. Only my former students call me that, so I eagerly read the note. This particular student said, “Mrs. Patrick, you probably don’t remember me but . . . .” Well, that almost certainly means I will remember that student, and I did. I remembered Tad vividly for several reasons.
This young man and his family are in the process of moving locations, and during the packing process he had discovered a letter I had written to him in 1994 during his freshman English class at Abilene High School. That particular class experienced a tragedy that most of us will remember for the rest of our lives. This particular student’s cousin was in the same class with him; one sad day, the cousin’s seat sat empty because he had died.
The saddest days in my teaching experience followed the death of a student. Words cannot express the devastating emotion of looking at an empty seat that should hold a young, healthy child. The teacher cannot ignore the obvious, so he or she must address the tragic absence. On the other hand, school is a formal situation rather than a family, social, or religious one; thus, a normal routine tries to assert itself in the midst of shock and sorrow.
I did not remember the specific letter I wrote to Tad, but he said he had kept it all these years because the letter had touched his heart enough for him to realize that some teachers are more than professional educators. They fill various roles throughout a child’s educational life. At times, I felt like someone’s mom, another’s grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a nurse, or a mentor. Among all those temporary roles, I remained an English teacher who loved her students.
Tad’s note expressed his awareness of how people in certain careers work in many more ways than their job descriptions detail. His note came to me on a blue day and caused me to think of other wonderful experiences in my teaching career.
The one I mention more often than any other concerns a student from my first year of teaching in 1972 at Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth. Administrators assigned teachers various additional duties during the school days. We often did hall patrol, grounds supervision, lunch room monitoring, and other such duties. One of mine required that I monitor a particular stairwell during my lunch break each day.
One of my freshmen students, a fourteen-year-old girl named Tammi, discovered my assigned location and began joining me each day after she finished her lunch. I do not remember our specific conversations, nor do I know the details of Tammi’s personal life.
For reasons I do not know, that fourteen-year-old girl found me a confidante when she needed one. She kept up with me over the years and has sent me a Christmas card every year since I taught her English. Never intrusive or presumptuous, she always writes something kind and thoughtful in my card each year.
Of course, then I was a twenty-two-year-old woman and viewed Tammi as a child; now, it seems strange that my student is just eight years my junior. My teacher/student relationships have always remained that way—separated by the appropriate boundaries mandated by that relationship. Many of my former students, now in their thirties, forties, and fifties, still call me “Mrs. Patrick.” Although I’ve told them it’s not necessary now, most of them retain the formal address (which I truly love).
I had some teachers and professors that I felt the same way about. My seventh-grade reading teacher, Miss Jackie Brashear, eventually became a colleague of mine. She invited me to call her by her first name, but I could not do it. The same happened with several professors. Even with their warm invitations to less formal relationships, I felt uncomfortable without the formal distinction of our former relationships. I chose the more formal one because I myself enjoy the role I had in many of my students’ lives.
Tad’s note reminded me of a keepsake box I kept for many years. It contained scores of notes and cards from students who inspired me and made me remember that my life as a teacher truly was a calling that fulfilled a major purpose for my existence. Any teacher will tell you that neither every student nor every year is a wonderful one. Each has its own personality, tone, and situation that determine the quality of rapport between the teacher and the students; however, the positive so far outweighs the negative that I treasure the investment of my life into the lives of young people, hoping that I added quality to their lives and to the world.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing