I met you guys 13 years ago this August. You were 12 - not quite little children, but not quite young adults, that awkward stage now known as the "tween years." I was barely 21, a new college graduate with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of uncertainty. On the day we met, I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I had spent weeks shopping for and decorating our classroom, and to this day, I can remember exactly what it looked like. I remember the bulletin boards I painstakingly decorated and the curtains I hung in the windows. I had pored over the textbook, carefully choosing the stories I would teach and the projects you would complete. My lesson plans for those first weeks were impeccable, and my welcome letter to you was thoughtful and full of my hopes for our year together. In short, I thought I was ready for you. In fact, I have never been more wrong. Because, even though I was a magna cum laude graduate with a degree in Secondary Education who had aced the Praxis exam and received great feedback on my student teaching, I was not prepared. I had no idea what I was really doing, and I had no idea just what was really expected of me as your teacher.
You're 25 now, perhaps college graduates with families of your own, and you might not even remember your 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Dutch Fork Middle, but if you do, this is what I want to say to you.
I am so sorry.
I feel now like I failed you.
It wasn't on purpose, and I didn't exactly realize it at the time, but now as an experienced teacher, I know the mistakes I made and the many ways I didn't give you what you needed. I saw you as students, but I forgot that you were people. I focused on the content, and I didn't consider your character. My priority was your performance, but I excluded your needs. Will you - can you? - please forgive me? I hope I didn't derail your education and make you despise school. I made it all about the academics - and regardless of what politicians, Common Core standards, and high-stakes testing say - it isn't. School isn't just about what you learn, but who you become. And I did nothing to help you become what you were meant to be.
I am so sorry.
That first year, I did not have kids of my own yet, and as a result, I didn't know how kids work. Sure, I had studied theories about child development and I had been lectured to about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but I didn't understand you. I never stopped to think about your home life and how it affected what you did in my room. I never considered that some of you were hurting or that you couldn't learn because your bellies were hungry. I was so naive, and I assumed that some of you weren't learning because you just weren't trying. Now I know that maybe you couldn't.
To you, sweet red-headed M, the first autistic child I ever taught, I beg your forgiveness. I had zero experience with autism, and you suffered as a result. I did not know what to do to help you. I felt helpless and scared. I pray that you are successful now anyway.
And you, little C.B. Your anger is what I remember all these years later. I never tried to understand where it came from, and I only added to it by staying on your case. I don't know where you are now, but I'm hoping that you encountered a teacher who knew and therefore cared more than I did.
G.H. - I heard that you brought a gun to school after I taught you. Thankfully, you didn't do anything with it, but I want you to know that I have questioned myself often about what I could have done to turn your life around when you were 12. It haunts me sometimes that I didn't try harder for you. I know I don't deserve the blame for the choices you made, but I wonder if I could have intervened back when you were in my care.
To all of you, the now-adults I will always picture as the then-children: goodness, do I wish I could have that year with you back. I would put down the legal pad of information I taught myself the day before I taught you, and we would just talk. I would ask about your dreams and tell you that they could come true. I would tell you about myself - the person, not the teacher. I would encourage you in your failures, not berate you for your lack of effort. I would care about your after-school activities, knowing that for some of you, they meant everything. I would be your safe place, because I know now that some of you didn't have one.
I haven't seen most of you since you were in the 7th grade, but I want you to know that my failures with you then have been the cause of some of my successes today. Anything good I do in my classroom today is because of the bad I did in yours then.
You might not remember me, but I will never forget you. You, my first students, deserve my apologies, but you also deserve my thanks. You changed me, and every student I encounter now benefits because of how you affected me. Wherever you are now and whatever you are doing, know that I'm thinking of you. I'm wishing you success, and I'm sending you "I'm sorry" all these years later. Learn from me now the hardest lesson I've ever learned myself - that the places where we fail and the times when we feel inadequate can also serve as the greatest stepping stones to finding where and what we need to be.