#26: To My 9th Grade Spanish Teacher

To My 9th Grade Spanish Teacher,

I know this will never reach you. I don’t even think you work at my high school anymore; so many teachers have come and gone, but I wanted to write and thank you. I wanted to thank you because you gave me something special that no one else gave me; you gave me the ability to read time.

I was 14 years old when I was in your class, and for 14 years I had somehow managed to slip through a lot of cracks within the school system. I knew I was behind in many aspects of my education, and I was embarrassed by this; however, nothing was more embarrassing than when you called on me in class to read the clock and give the time in Spanish. I floundered, and for the first time I panicked in class. I felt the eyes of my classmates on me as they waited for me to answer, and I knew that my well-placed mask of intelligence and book-smarts was about to blow up in my face as everyone around me realized I couldn’t read the time. As I swallowed the lump in my throat and opened my mouth to answer you the bell rang, and I never felt so relieved in my life to hear that damn thing ring. My classmates quickly fled the room, but I sat in my seat trying to hold back my tears as I looked down at our cheesy 4th grade, handmade clocks that consisted of cardboard hands and a paper plate. I gathered my stuff and walked up to you, my eyes looking down at this damn clock in my hands, and I hated myself. I hated feeling stupid. I hated every Christmas my uncle and my mother would take turns buying me watches that I could never read, in hopes it would teach me how to tell time.

I remember looking at you as you smiled at me; you were one of my favorite teachers. You were always so full of energy, and you were so caring. You had warm eyes, and you were so short it was kind of adorable, but you frowned as I shifted in front of you. I know you frowned because I could hear it in your voice as you asked me what was wrong, I never acted nervous with you. I remember the burning in my eyes as I placed my books on your table, my fingers fiddling with that damn paper clock.

“I can’t tell time.” I remember clearly whispering that to you, looking up at you over my glasses as your eyes widened in shock. I was glad you heard me the first time, because I don’t think I could have said it twice. It wasn’t the beginning of the school year, and I had established high GPA’s in all of my classes, and yet there I was, standing in front of you, telling you I couldn’t do something as simple as reading a clock. I felt my chest clench in embarrassment. Hell, I could read sheet music and I was developing a decent ability with Spanish. I read a different book every week and yet I couldn’t read time? I don’t know why I expected you to ridicule me, or tell me that I was a failure for not being able to do something so simple; something the rest of my classmates did with ease. I dropped my chin to my chest as I waited for your response…do you remember what you said?

“Faith it’s okay. I will help you; this is nothing to be embarrassed about.”

I damn near cried, and I had to take a moment to compose myself.  In retrospect, it was silly to think that you would ridicule me, but instead you followed through with your promise. Granted you taught me how to tell time in Spanish first, which made converting time to English a tad bit tricky, but you taught me how to read the clock. You were patient with me as I counted each little line on the clock to figure out the time, until finally you took away the lines and forced me to learn how to read without counting. You gave me extra work sheets and pages to do in my textbook, but you never handed them to me in front of my classmates. I appreciated more than I let on back then; I was still embarrassed, but the little gestures you did to make me comfortable meant the world to me.

I was lucky, and I know that. I was lucky to have you and Ms. D, and Britto and Eck, and the other teachers I was lucky enough to have in high school. I don’t know if you knew this, but in middle school the teachers would tell us that high school teacher’s wouldn’t care about what we wanted, or needed. That you wouldn’t hold our hands, or care if we struggled, because we were young adults now and we needed to learn to handle ourselves. Sure you’d be there if we had a question or two, but for the most part we’d be on our own. It was the spiel we got about middle school teachers when we were in elementary school, and although a part of me knew that it couldn’t be all true, I was scared that it was. I was scared the teachers wouldn’t care if we passed or failed, or that we would be blamed for not grasping the materials.

I experienced that shame and fear from the moment I stepped into that school district. When I was in 4th grade and still couldn’t multiply by three and my science skills were very weak. I remember the first time we had a spelling bee, and I felt confident for the first time because I knew I could spell. I remembered 3rd grade “baseball bee’s”, where we had to rapidly spell to reach a base, and the harder the word the more bases we could travel. I was good at that, so I was confident, until my first spelling bee in that district. It was a word I knew, and I spelled it correctly, but I was the first person to sit down in the class because I didn’t repeat the word before spelling it. I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed because I didn’t know “the spelling rules.” It was the first time I felt resentment towards establishment; towards unnecessary rules and traditions, something wrought in our district. “Attitude plus Aptitude equals Altitude,” was the motto shoved down our throats and I decided that if the system that was supposed to help me was going to keep me down, then I was going to work it against itself.

I mean, my 8th grade guidance counselor did tell me that I wasn’t smart enough for anything higher than community college and he wasn’t going to enroll me in the Advanced Regents track because it would be too hard for me. My high school guidance counselor was the one who told me I wouldn’t be able to handle AP courses, and that there were no scholarships to help me pay for the courses. Yet there you were, along with Britto, and Ms. D and Eck, fighting for me, and with me, for something more. Never once did any of you condemn me for any skills I had lacked, and never made me feel like it was my fault for not knowing how to do something. You never made me feel like it was my fault for not being able to tell time, and I lack the words to tell you how much I appreciate you, for your kindness and gentle strength. I lack the words to tell you how much you changed my life that quarter.

I still pause when I have to look at an analog clock and I sometimes have to count the little lines, but being able to look at a watch and give someone the time still makes me swell up with pride. I know it isn’t the same, but I think it is a similar feeling that someone gets when they are able to read for the first time, pride, humility, excitement. Now, every time I read a clock, I think of you and how much you changed my life by teaching me this one simply thing. I know it may not seem like a lot, but to me it was everything. I just wanted the world to know this, that you helped a scared young girl. I hope one day this reaches you, so that you will know what I’ve made sure the world knows, that you made a difference. Gracias.

-Faith

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