15: Close Encounters in a Classroom

15: Close Encounters in a Classroom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Close Encounters in a Classroom

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

~Nelson Mandela

Beethoven’s Fifth blared from the speaker as students called out the feelings the music evoked: thunder, dancing, traffic. I wrote their responses on the board so they could weave them into poetry. Because Elizabeth was quiet, I didn’t notice her among the boisterous students in the classroom.

That was the fall of 1999, when I volunteered every Friday in a twelfth grade English classroom at East Side Community High School in Manhattan, a school which admitted students who showed promise but whose grades had fallen short of their ability. The teacher I was assisting, Ms. Martin, was barely thirty and she dressed in jeans like her students.

Ms. Martin knew that I had published dozens of personal essays, so she asked if I would help the students with their college essays. I readily agreed, and she showed me Elizabeth’s and said, “I’d like your opinion.”

Elizabeth and I sat together as Beethoven bounced off the walls. She was petite, barely five feet tall, and weighed less than ninety pounds. She was feminine and appeared fragile, as if someone could break her.

Her essay explained that she couldn’t concentrate at the beginning of high school. Her grades were low, but had really improved since coming to this school in tenth grade. A page later, she described walking home one afternoon in ninth grade when a man jumped her, dragged her into an alley, and raped her.

No wonder she couldn’t concentrate. I was shaken. I didn’t even know what to say. I feared blurting out words meant to comfort, only to injure her again in some unwitting way. Yet Elizabeth was serene, sitting there in a fuzzy sweater. I looked into her brown eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I croaked.

“It’s not your fault,” she said.

I wanted to hug her, but we’d just met. “Are you okay?” I asked. “I mean…”

“It changed my life.” She fidgeted with a pen. “I moped around for months. I think I was depressed.” She sounded as if she were telling someone else’s story.

I wished to do the impossible — make the rape go away.

“My mother knew something was wrong, but I wouldn’t tell her. I was so ashamed. We’re Puerto Rican, and I didn’t think my family could take it.”

I listened, spellbound and flummoxed.

“My advisor said I’d changed. She kept asking me why. Finally, I told her. She got me into this school. She saved me.”

“You’re brave to write your story,” I said.

We sat in silence for a moment. I picked up her essay.

“Is it any good?” she asked.

“It’s outstanding. It’s everything a personal essay should be — it’s honest and thought provoking. You revealed your character and showed growth.”

Ms. Martin zoomed toward us. “Isn’t she a marvelous writer?”

“I’m impressed with her depth,” I said.

“But can I make my essay better?” Elizabeth asked.

I paused. I didn’t know how to express what I was thinking without sounding insensitive. But I took a risk. “Would you consider starting the essay with the rape?”

“That’s where I wrote it in my first draft,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s true. I suggested she move it to the middle of the essay,” said Ms. Martin. “I thought it was too upsetting for the opening.”

“It’s heartbreaking wherever it appears,” I said. “But it sets up the essay’s theme. With a new lead, admissions people will notice Elizabeth’s essay.”

“You’re right,” she said. “I tell my students to open with a grabber.”

Elizabeth and I tweaked her essay before she submitted it with her application and a request for financial aid to the State University of New York. For weeks, I worked with her classmates, honing their essays, too.

One Friday in April as the trees started budding, Elizabeth ran over. “I got in!” she said. “With a scholarship. I can’t believe it — I’m going to college!”

“Congratulations!” I said, hugging her. “I’m thrilled for you!”

She was excited about the future. “I want to be a teacher,” she gushed. “To help kids with problems… the way so many teachers, like you, have helped me.”

“You’ll be a wonderful teacher,” I said.

She grew pensive. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college. I don’t know what to expect.”

I tried explaining what college was like. Living in a dorm with roommates. Enjoying freedom but taking responsibility for yourself.

Over the next few weeks, she had more questions. “I don’t even know what to bring to college.”

I gave her an article I’d published called “In Gear for College,” which listed every item students need, including a door stopper.

“Wow, some of this stuff is expensive,” she said.

I crossed out items that weren’t necessary.

“How will I get everything to college? My parents don’t own a car. We’re going there by bus.”

“You can buy most of it on campus or nearby,” I said.

In June, I hugged her again when we said goodbye. “Listen,” I said. “There’ll be parties at school. Watch how much you drink.”

“I know,” she said. “I don’t want any more bad things to happen.”

“Just be careful and use your head,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”

My relationship with Elizabeth left me yearning to teach again. That fall as she started college, I began working for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit that sends writers into public schools to teach writing alongside classroom teachers. Since then, I’ve been nurturing the magic inside hundreds of students.

One third grader wrote exclusively about her father, who had died of cancer. I welled up reading her stories. She was working out her sorrow, while keeping his memory alive.

There was a girl in a special-education class who wouldn’t speak. Her teacher told me she’d been abused. The day I taught the persuasive essay, I asked students what they’d like to change in this world.

“Screaming,” she whispered.

“I know how you feel,” I said. “My mother was a screamer.”

I coaxed her to put her thoughts on paper. “Stop screaming,” she wrote. “It is mean. It makes me scared.”

A fifth grader wrote a poem about an ancestor in slavery, describing lashings and his bloody back. She desperately wanted it published in the annual anthology. When administrators worried it was too violent, I convinced them it was powerful.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the girl said when she saw it in print.

Over the sixteen years I’ve taught writing in classrooms throughout New York City, there are countless students I remember vividly. I carry their poems and stories in my heart, the way I cherish Elizabeth’s.

She’s now in her thirties. I picture her in a classroom of sad-eyed students, rescuing kids who’ve lost their way. I regret not staying in touch with her. But I was too green. I had no idea how much she’d mean to me.

I wish I could tell her she unleashed a talent I never knew I possessed — inspiring students to spin their lives into art. As much as I encouraged her, she gave me a gift, not the other way around.

~Linda Morel

More stories from our partners