Letter to Twenty-one-year-old Me

by Cindi on April 15, 2014

This weekend I had the opportunity to return to my university for an alumni meeting. I think we can all agree that the most exciting time on a college campus is the beginning of spring…when the trees are blooming and the students are outside milling about, throwing Frisbees and sitting on blankets in the sun, and the crack of the bat hitting a ball echoes off the dorm walls.

As I walked from the parking lot to the Alumni Center, I was thrown back to the early 80’s when I walked on that same brick path, headed to the education building on the other side of campus. That day I was walking behind UNC basketball great Sam Perkins, and I was marveling at the span of his arms, a feature he was famous for throughout his college and NBA years.

Sam Perkins was a member of the 1982 NCAA Championship team,
along with Michael Jordan and James Worthy.

For whatever reason that memory stuck with me, and every time I’m on that path I remember the way Sam Perkins walked on that day, arms hanging almost to his knees, as I walked in his shadow. This time I remembered it, too, but there were other thoughts as well. I was thinking about how young and innocent I was back then and how excited about teaching. I had my entire teaching career before me and, boy, how I thought I would change the world!

If I could go back to those days, I’d have a lot to tell myself about the teacher I would become, about the journey I would take as a teacher. Some of my experiences along the way have been predictable, but others…well…others have hit me upside the head out of nowhere. That’s why I wish my future self had warned me.

Better late than never, I guess.

Dear 21-year-old me,

You will teach.

And you’ll love it just as much as you think you will. There are students who will wrap themselves around your heart…and stay there…throughout your entire career. You’ll love every poem and every story, every punctuation quiz, and every pronoun worksheet. Everything you loved as a student, you’ll love a zillion times more as a teacher.

You will laugh.

You’ll laugh every day at the antics of the middle school child. Those students will keep you young and informed about the latest pop trend, the latest way to sound cool around your own children and grandchildren. Sometimes they’ll make you laugh at a time when you’re really trying to be serious. Understand this: they will win. You’ll laugh anyway.

You will learn.

Every year you’ll grow, maybe more than your students. They’ll keep you on your toes as you try to choose the most innovative teaching strategies and the most engaging lessons you can think of (remember those teachers who just stood in front of the class and talked-talked-talked when you were in school? Yea…it’s not like that anymore.)You’ll look back after thirty years and realize you know so much more about people…and about that subject matter, the one that’s responsible for making you pull all-nighters right now. You think you know English? Try explaining it to 11-year-olds. Then you’ll really know it.

You will be blindsided.

In your first year, you’ll realize that some students choose not to learn, and some of those students have no one at home who cares if they learn or not. Later, you’ll learn more about the apathetic, and even the abusive, parent. You’ll teach children without homes and children who have one set of clothes. You’ll teach hungry kids and sick kids. You’ll sit with one student in the rubber room of a hospital after a suicide threat. Your heart will crack when one of your favorite characters from third period ends up in jail. And then it will break in two when the one you worked on so hard shows up on the news for murder.

You’ll find out that there are teachers who don’t love the job, or the kids, like you do. You’ll walk around in disbelief that they didn’t choose another profession. You’ll wish they would.

You will have regrets.

You’ll ask yourself constantly what you could have done to be a better teacher. You’ll wonder how you could have worked harder, crammed more hours into the day, made a difference. You’ll wonder what words you could have said that would be louder than the other voices in your students’ ears. You’ll wish you didn’t take a sick day now and then just because you’re exhausted. You’ll wish you never were exhausted…you’ll want every sick day and snow day and two-hour-delay back, all of them more time to make an impact on a child.

You’ll look back at thirty years of student faces and smile…you may cry a little. And in your mind you’ll wrap your pretend Sam Perkins arms around them all and thank them for the honor, the privilege, and the joy of being a part of their lives. 

Maybe one of them will remember your classroom…just a short walk on their path.

Sometimes short walks on paths are memorable.

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