Yesterday’s post featured author Lyn Fairchild Hawks’ novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Lyn’s experience as a teacher in economically diverse and racially mixed schools shaped her novel (and her life) in profound ways. Today she answers the question, What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
From Lyn: When I was a novice high school English teacher, I would often seek out my department chair. She was the one who explained to me why I didn’t have to write a script for every word I’d say in class and who told me why I should be on time to department meetings. (Keep in mind I was marking students tardy and didn’t see the irony.) She offered me brilliant lessons to emulate and unwavering support with my most challenging students. When I wasn’t sure how to help kids who struggled with neglect, poverty, and gangs, she was there for me: a true mentor.
One time I reached out to her because one girl – I’ll call her Sandra – once a cheerful and eager student had suddenly one day shut down. She stopped submitting homework and couldn’t wait to exit class. I felt like a failure when my words left no impression and phone calls home got no result. My chair agreed to join me for the parent conference because I was desperate and needed guidance.
My mentor looked Sandra in the eye and told her she was a diamond. And that sometimes, diamonds are covered in a lot of s*%$.
I remember watching the parents’ faces with fear, but there was no reaction; they stared at their daughter, as if begging her to respond. I realized they were in my same situation: wondering why Sandra was a wall several stories high.
Later, we learned Sandra was hiding her pregnancy. She was 14.
My mentor knew that tough times call for tough words, and she knew to cut through the polished language and ritual of a parent-teacher conference to rattle this girl locked in her own cage. It didn’t matter that Sandra’s face was unreadable; I had no doubt in my soul my mentor’s words had pried her lid open just a crack and would be sealed somewhere in the vault.
I recall my mentor telling me afterwards that we never know as teachers whether we will be the first, the thirteenth, or the hundredth person to intervene in a student’s life. We won’t know when a girl who seems impermeable and determined to self-sabotage will suddenly respond to help being offered. We have to trust we are part of a greater chain of love and hope, each link building to something bigger, giving efforts that might one day lead to change. Trust in that process, rather than our own power or efficacy. Believe that carbon can convert; luminous growth does happen. Sometimes our youth surmount terrible obstacles and experience lives of joy. That is why you as a teacher must try and try again.
I can’t tell you the end of Sandra’s story; she left for the alternative school and we didn’t stay in touch. My tiny attempt to reach her and my mentor’s bold words may have been part of a chain. I pray that they were.
Some people might hear this story and think I rationalize to keep myself going. Perhaps they would point to those students those who couldn’t rise above the struggle and remain lost to violence, abuse, and poverty till this day. Students where they can say, No interventions helped.
And maybe they’re right: perhaps the moment I just described was really for me more than Sandra; I’ll never know for sure. I do know that in subsequent years I learned again and again how it’s not all about my efforts and my success or failure. It’s about the trying to find a way to reach someone and most of all, the caring. With some students, I saw movement within my short time of influence because I was privileged to witness their courageous, bold choices. I saw them embrace the light rather than darkness threatening from every corner. There was Jamie who said to me every morning, And how are you today, ma’am?, cracking jokes and helping me keep his class of rambunctious fellow seventh graders in line though what waited for him at home was a grim trailer and an ill father on disability. There was Marlene who stepped in when the lead for A Raisin in the Sun got sick, and saved the day with her enthusiasm, even though a fellow teacher had told me Marlene and her fellow cast members were “trash.” And there was Paul who wrote beautiful prose despite his battles with seizures and a harrowing story of immigration, days of near death after he and his family left Vietnam. These kids’ belief in life sustained mine.
As a Young Adult author, I write about kids like Sandra. I call them Wendy and Minerva and convert my guilt and helplessness into new people, places, and outcomes when there’s nothing else I can do. A plot twist leads a character around a bend where luminous change beckons. And whenever I craft a character of a teacher, the eternal question remains: “What would my mentor do?”