87. Just for You, Teacher

87. Just for You, Teacher

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: From Lemons to Lemonade

Just for You, Teacher

The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places.

~Author Unknown

“You’ve got to be kidding! That’s your teacher?” As I approached my classroom, I immediately knew something was wrong. My students clustered around the door to the room where our Tuesday evening Grammar Basics course met at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach. A tall middle-aged man stood in the center, looking down at one of my students as she pointed down the hall towards me.

I fought back the embarrassment I felt warming my cheeks. I was only thirty-two, but even with my hair pulled back, I looked much younger — much younger, in fact, than most of my students. The male instructor chuckled as I approached. I took a deep breath.

After finishing graduate school, my salary as an editor with a non-profit organization wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so I decided to moonlight as an adjunct instructor in the English department of the local community college. When I was a child, I always wanted to be a teacher. I imagined a class of young, eager elementary-aged students, but not this. I had no clue what to do with adults.

Only entering freshmen who failed to pass the written portion of the entrance exam were required to take one of the two preparatory, no-credit prerequisites for English Composition I. Half of my class didn’t think they deserved to be there. The other half didn’t seem to care. Teaching was difficult enough. Now I had to deal with other instructors?

As I approached the door to my classroom, even my own students overshadowed me. I found myself looking up at a man at least a decade older and a full head taller than myself.

“Is there a problem?”

Yes, his class needed to run over time tonight, and he needed our classroom. “You’ll have to find another room, Miss. . . ?”

“That’s Ms. Bennett.” I was flustered but tried to hold my head high. “I’m sorry sir, but our class has this room booked every Tuesday night. You’ll have to find another room to meet in.”

As I busied myself preparing for the class, he found a room, but my confidence was damaged. I wasn’t sure if I had enough left to deal with the reluctant students sitting before me. I forced a smile and jumped into the lesson.

There were days like this when I didn’t want this job. I was tired, overworked, and didn’t feel like I was making a bit of difference to any of the students. By the time finals rolled around, more than half my class had dropped. Out of the few who remained, half were failing.

I felt like a failure. What was I thinking? I was a writer, who worked in solitude. Words rarely had attitudes and never spoke back. What ever made me think I could teach? My first class reviews were brutal.

My advisor comforted me over the phone one evening. “Don’t worry about it. You accomplished what you needed to with the class. Some students just aren’t going to be happy with it. That’s normal.”

Well, it didn’t feel normal. I second-guessed my decision to teach another semester. After grades had been submitted I made one last trip to the mailroom to drop off my contract and clear out my mailbox before the Christmas holiday. Under the recommended syllabus for the spring course was a red envelope.

I sat down in my car, put the paperwork aside, and opened the envelope. Inside was a Christmas card with a cartoon illustration of Santa on the cover. At the top were the words: “Just for you, Teacher.” It reminded me of the kind of card a child might pick out, but when I opened it, I immediately recognized the handwriting. . . Anna.

Anna had approached my desk when I dismissed the first class of the semester. Tears had filled her eyes. Her hands shook, and her voice trembled as she spoke in a heavily accented broken English.

“Ms. Bennett, I don’t think I can take this class. I don’t take tests very good.”

I looked at the syllabus in her hand. I had scheduled five quizzes and two tests (a mid-term and a final). I listened as Anna told me about moving to America from the Ukraine earlier that year. She wanted to study here, but just didn’t understand the proper sentence and paragraph structure. By the time she was finished, tears streamed down her face, and her voice was barely audible.

“Sit down.” After the other students left, I tried my best to assure Anna that the quizzes and tests were not meant to trip her up. They were simply a way for me to keep track of how each student understood the material throughout the semester and help those who were struggling. “If you understand the weekly homework exercises, you’ll do fine on the quizzes. And if you need extra help, I’m available before and after class to answer any questions.”

When Anna left that evening, she had wiped the tears from her face and promised me that she would be back for the next class. Throughout the semester, I never saw a student work harder. If she missed one question, she asked me to clarify it for her. She passed the course with a strong “B” average.

The thought of Anna’s success made me smile. I had been so focused on all the other students, I had almost forgotten about her first-day fears. Then I read the note she wrote inside the card:

Dear Ms. Bennett,

I really enjoyed having you as my teacher this year. English isn’t one of my favorite subjects, but you make the class fun and exciting. I really hope that my other teachers are just like you.

I believe that I learned much more than just English. . . I learned not to give up and to try again if I fail. I wish you the best and hope to see you again one day.

Anna

As I watched Anna struggle through each quiz that semester, I never realized that she was learning an even greater lesson than English grammar. And in that moment, she taught me something greater than my own fear of failure. If Anna didn’t give up, why should I?

I’ve kept that Christmas card to this day to remind me that feeling like a failure is rarely a true test of reality. I proceeded to teach another semester at the community college before taking another position. Today, in addition to writing, I teach creative and academic writing workshops regularly to children, elementary through high school.

If I ever saw Anna again, I would thank her for teaching me not to give up and to keep trying, even when I feel like I’ve failed.

~Carolyn Bennett Fraiser

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