An Open Letter to My Former Highschool Teachers: By Sarah Henderson
HA note: Sarah Henderson blogs at Feminist in Spite of Them about her journey from Quiverfull to Feminist. The following post was originally published on her blog on October 15, 2013 and is reprinted with her permission.
When I came to the high school at age 17, I had absolutely no idea how to be a student.
Many of you know by now that I didn’t know what a teacher-student dynamic was. I hope you understand that up to that point I had been around adults who mostly made stuff up as they went along, and expected respect from authority that was derived simply from being bigger and older, not from legitimate accomplishment. To a scared 17 year old, it looked the same at first, because of the authority aspect.
In the three years I went to high school, I learned to respect you for the knowledge and expertise you represent. I think I was supposed to respect you simply for being teachers, adults, and authority figures, but instead I respected the time and effort it took to become teachers, and the skill and patience that kept you there.
I remember sitting in my first class, which was a grade nine math class. That was a difficult thing for me, to enter a class with people three years younger than I was. But to the teacher who taught that class, and the second teacher who took over part way through (this was when the big math shuffle happened), thank you.
Thank you for seeing my anxiety and deciding to explain to the entire class what the 8:25 bell was, even though they clearly knew.
Thank you for for patiently explaining what the relationship between decimals and fractions was. I really didn’t know. To the librarian, thank you for making the library a safe place. I would have been very afraid of that environment and never gone there, especially because some students really avoided it. But you always said hello to me and that made me feel special even though you did that with everyone.
I liked that you knew my name. It made me feel less anonymous and afraid.
To my language teachers, thank you for doing what it took to allow me to have the best swath of language courses that I could in three years. To my drama and music teachers, these classes pulled me out of my shell the most. I learned that for the first time I could be a meaningful part of something significant. You taught me to not be afraid and to simply do, and that putting myself out there was not dangerous. Thank you for recognizing my ability to create, and giving me the chance to do that with costumes.
To my science teachers, thank you for creating a safe environment to learn. It was a bit of a rocky road for me, and a lot of that came out in science classes for some reason, but you were patient and somehow I never failed a science class, for which I am grateful.
To my guidance counselors, thank you for not making me muddle through a grade nine phys. ed. class with 13 and 14 year olds and expose my complete lack of knowledge about various sports. Thank you for taking the time to place me in the appropriate levels of classes and being willing to juggle that for three years. Thank you for the time you spent listening to me and believing me.
Thank you for calling family and children’s services with me.
Thank you for trusting that even though I didn’t always know how to act appropriately, I was learning as quickly as I could, and thank for seeing that I could succeed. Thank you for not punishing me when I engaged in self-injury at school. I didn’t know how inappropriate that was until you told me.
I didn’t actually know that self-injury was a “thing” or a big deal. I had never heard of it
But I had been doing it for a decade by then.
To my principals, thank you for not suspending me or punishing me for mistakes I made, and thank you for trusting that they were legitimate errors and not deliberate. Thank you for making allowances where you did but also for drawing the line where you did. The fact that you did draw some lines and said that there were certain things I did need to do, helped me learn to function more fully in a society with expectations. I learned that there are provisions for when you need them, but I also learned to take responsibility and action when I was able. Thank you for recognizing how challenging school was for me, and thank you for doing it in a way that celebrated success, not difficulty.
To my English teachers, thank you for the impact you have had on my life. From Grade 11 English where you gently explained to me what an essay actually was and how to write one (I really didn’t know), to writer’s craft and children’s literature where I had a chance to be creative, these classes allowed me to feel successful because I was able to achieve decent grades and take pride in what I wrote. You recognized when I was trying hard even if my results were not stellar. You explained to me how to improve when I was not happy with a grade. You suggested books for me to read as you started to learn more about my past. Thank you for being available to me and hearing me. Thank you for supporting me and helping me process through these classes. Thank you for letting me start off doing presentations in private but pushing me to do them to the class when you knew I was ready.
Thank you for teaching me the value of writing. That positive experience is why I am able to use the written word to share my story now.
To all the teachers and other staff at the high school, thank you for encouraging me and helping me learn how to be a student. Thank you for treating me with dignity even when I didn’t act very dignified. Thank you for being willing to overlook my shortcomings in exchange for investing in a brighter future. Thank you for being kind even when I was rude, thank you for knowing when to let things slide and when to push me to do better.
Thank you for being gentle with me when I was going through rougher times, and thank you ever so much for taking it as a given that I would go to university. Once I reached a certain point in high school, it was not really treated by you as optional that I would go, instead it was simply a question of where and what.
I owe a great deal to you.
People do not always get a chance to hear about the positive impact they had with a smile or a short conversation, and this letter is intended to make sure you are aware of that impact.