Michelle* was a beautiful girl with skin the color of onyx. She was smart and funny with a quick wit and an even quicker tongue. She was both fiery and feisty which meant I spent a lot of time coming to her rescue when she got into a bit of verbal sparring with a teacher. On many days there’d be a knock on my door and there, with a mischievous smile, would stand Michelle. “I got kicked out of class. Can I come in here?” With a sigh and an eye roll I would usher her into my room and direct her to her desk. Although I taught her once a day for 9th Lit, and she had an assigned seat, Michelle also had another seat which was reserved for her when she arrived unannounced to find refuge and a good bit of fussing from me. Nevertheless, I liked her. And she liked me. But even more importantly, she trusted me. In fact, I was genuinely the only teacher in the building for which this was true at the time and if you were to ask her why she’d say “Because Mrs. Holliman gets me.” That was it. I GOT her and that was good enough to earn her confidence. But truthfully, it was much more than that.
But even more importantly, she trusted me Click To Tweet
When I met Michelle she was cursing another student out in the hallway. As I stood there and marveled at the degree to which she spewed the words I said, “I’m pretty certain none of that is necessary.” She stopped momentarily and turned to face me. “Who the f*$% asked you” and then proceeded to continue. I then said “Okay. Let me clarify my previous statement. NONE of that is necessary and what you’re not going to do is continue to use that language in this hallway. I don’t know you but I just believe you are better than what you are showing right now so prove me right and go to class!” She stopped again and opened her mouth as if to reply and then, much to my surprise, and the surprise of the young lady she was laying waste with her words she said, “Yes ma’am” and proceeded to go to class, mine.
She walked in and sat in the last desk in the last row and barely said two words. In fact, for the first nearly four weeks of school she said almost nothing. Even when I called on her, she would either mumble a response or refuse to answer. One day during lunch, I saw her sitting in the hallway. I asked why she wasn’t at lunch and she just shrugged. “Well you can’t just sit here. Come to my room and you can stay with me.” She gathered her belongings and followed. As she sat at the desk I quickly noticed tears streaming down her face. With tissue in hand, I asked “What’s wrong?” Immediately, in a torrent of sobs and nearly unintelligible words, she proceeded to tell me how much she hated herself and was considering suicide. “I hate my skin and I hate that I’m fat and my mom is mad at me because my grades suck and I can’t seem to ever be happy and I’m just tired!” I paused slightly and said “I know exactly how you feel. Been there; not only bought the tee shirt I created it I think.” She sniffled and looked up incredulously. I smiled. “What? You don’t believe me, huh?” She shook her head vigorously. “Well,” I said as I moved the desk so I could face her,”let me tell you a story.”
I proceeded to share with her my own self esteem struggles, not only as a child, but as an adult. I also shared my own battles with depression and suicidal thoughts from when I was in high school and the pain I felt when I didn’t live up to my parents expectations. She asked “How did you get over all of it?” I shrugged and said “I have no idea. But thanks to you I now know WHY I got over all of it.” Puzzled, she said “Because of me?” I smiled and patted her hand. “Yup. I believe we don’t ever go through anything for our own benefit. We go through things (emphasis on “through”) for people we haven’t met yet. See, if I hadn’t gone through my experiences I wouldn’t have been able to relate to what you are experiencing now so, as far as I am concerned, I went through for you.” She sniffed once more and started to cry again. “Thank you Mrs. Holliman. I’ve never met anyone who understood before.” I grabbed a few more tissue and smiled “You’re welcome. Now, you know we have to go see a counselor right?” She cracked a smile “I know. But I feel so much better.” “Great!” I said. “We’re going anyway.”
Four years later, Michelle walked across the stage, head held high, confidence even higher and went off to college. She says she wouldn’t be there if it hadn’t been for me. Normally, I would disagree completely but in her case, she was right. Her mother told me later that it was that conversation in my classroom that day that changed her daughter’s life for the better. She was struggling trying to figure out what was wrong with her daughter and how to help her when Michelle went home and shared our entire conversation with her. “You made the difference Mrs. Holliman and I can’t thank you enough.”
I share this story not to be a braggadocio but to offer it as evidence that being a transparent teacher can be powerful. To be clear, I am a very private person and there is nothing that annoys me more than when people try to be “all in my business.” But, in my opinion, there is a difference between being an open book and being transparent. Transparency is only appropriate when there is a reason for it, like with Michelle. She was hurting and what she needed was for someone to see things from her point of view, not in theory, but from experience. Truthfully, it was a no-brainer for me because I genuinely believed, and still believe, what I told her: My experiences aren’t for me. They’re for someone else.
there is a difference between being an open book and being transparent Click To Tweet
Over time I have been cautioned not to share too much about myself with my students. “You don’t want them to become overly familiar with you.” I get it. But when a child comes to me to share they have been molested, or homeless, or depressed, or suicidal I can relate and I need them to know that. When a student comes and shares that they battle low self esteem, struggle with their identity, are being bullied, or simply wants to fit in, I need them to know that they are not alone.
Carrie Fisher, the iconic actress best known for her role has the infamous Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died last week. Throughout her life she battled alcohol abuse and mental illness and we know this not because the media dug it up (although I’m sure they did some), but because she was open and honest about her struggles. In an interview she said:
We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not “I survived living in Mosul during an attack” heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.
…an opportunity to be a good example…isn’t that at least part of our jobs as educators? To be good examples to the students we teach? Carrie knew that her struggles were not hers alone and she believed that by sharing them she might do some good for people she hadn’t met and probably would never meet. And she did. How many students might you help, might we help, if we chose to be heroic from time to time. There is power in transparency. There is also power in being able to say I made it through which then translates into “so you can too.” I’m not saying that you should lay your life open for all to skim, but an experience, and example, shared with a student or students who truly need it can go a long way to not only helping them succeed, but survive.
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