A Message to Mean Teachers
My grade school memoir in 3 parts.
I still remember when my homeroom teacher humiliated me in front of the entire 5th-grade class.
My teacher had asked the class what they wanted to be when they grow up. I raised my hand and said that I wanted to do business. Her response was something I would have never expected to hear.
“You, a businesswoman? No one would ever work for someone like you!”
I doubt any 10-year-old would have expected their teacher to say that about them in front of 30 of their classmates. Her comment set off a burst of laughter in the classroom.
“You’re too talkative! Your employees would hate having you as a boss. ”
She added before laughing along with the 5th graders.
It wasn't the only time that she had targeted— bullied, me. I remember being class captain and she would always go after me then blame me if the class was being noisy. She would pull me aside and yell at me when the class came late to the music classroom. She never did that to my co-captain who was a boy, a student-athlete, and considerably quieter than me. Ironically, he was the one who was slacking off (he admitted this to me laughingly many years later). My homeroom teacher had always assumed that the fault was mine.
I joined the student council in 8th grade and became student council president in 9th grade.
I went to a suburban Catholic school. We wore pleated skirts that had to cover our knees. We weren’t allowed to dye our hairs or wear jewelry. Naturally, our headmistress was a strict, conservative lady who revered obedience and silence.
So she made it clear that she disapproved of me being president. She said to my face that I was bad, and she also — on multiple occasions — talked ill of me in front of my classmates, in her office.
One day, I had gotten lost on a school field trip. We were given free time to walk around outside, but I got lost and was late to get back on the bus. When I got on, everybody was silent. I was sat next to the headmistress, and during the ride, she said:
“My biggest regret is letting you become the student council president. You don’t even have friends.”
I then learned that my headmistress had forced everyone to not talk to me for the rest of the night. That didn’t work out, because the first thing my friends did after we got back to the hotel was to tell me what happened.
I started seeing someone at the beginning of my senior year. He was the typical good student who always participated in class, listened to teachers, and never late. Once, I fell asleep leaning on his shoulder on the bus during a school trip. We weren’t even cuddling — let alone kissing (gasp) because PDA was a myth to us (again, Catholic school).
The next day, our biology teacher called the boy and suggested he stay away from me because I was a bad influence. She said that she didn’t want to start becoming talkative like me. She then called me, saying that what I did on the bus was inappropriate — but she didn’t tell me to stop seeing the guy. I think she didn’t like that I tried to explain how we were really just sleeping and not fooling around; she became disapproving of me since then.
In the same semester, she told a parent that her daughter was spending too much time with me and was becoming more chatty in class. The parent disagreed, saying that I was a good friend to her child. I was actually spending time with that person, helping her pass biology. But that teacher never knew.
I had a love-hate relationship with my teachers from elementary school up until senior high school. Some loved me because I was always curious and chatty. Some hated me because I asked too many questions and was loud. You would think that I was the rebel type who smoked and skipped class…
I wasn’t. Granted, I was never a model student, per se. But I was in many ways, a good student. I was always top of the class, joined a bunch of clubs and academic activities and never missed class. But I was talkative. I would pester the teachers with my questions. I would laugh during lectures when I find something funny. Most of the time, I just found it hard to focus in class.
I didn’t care much about these incidents growing up. Despite making me sad and angry, these thoughts didn’t really keep me up at night. I remained chatty and inquisitive, continued making friends and having fun, joined clubs and pursued all my interests. My teenage years were very much normal. While I never understood why these teachers were so spiteful of me, I had always managed to brush it off.
I only realized how powerful those words really are when I was furthest away from the school grounds.
16 thousand kilometers away from home, to be precise.
My junior year of college was my lowest point in life. I had moved across the country the semester before and was experiencing my first Michigan winter. In hindsight, it looked like depression although I refused to admit it at the time.
If you know me, you probably see me as the happy-go-lucky kind. I never saw myself other than that, too. It didn’t seem like I had the potential to be that girl — the girl who has to tell everyone about her ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. The girl who always has to bring up her meds in any conversation.
I grew up in a happy family. I had no daddy issues. It’s impossible that I’m depressed, I thought.
Wrong. That semester, I spent hours loathing, condemning, and cursing myself. I couldn’t think of anything to be thankful or happy for. Frankly, there were times when I couldn’t think. All I could do was feel like a failure. I would cry because of the smallest things — like when I couldn’t find my passport (that was just misplaced), then cry even more because I felt like a failure for not storing my things properly. It was a time when everything I did seemed like a mistake and anything I was doing seemed stupid.
Old memories have a way of resurfacing. Some are triggered by scent, like my boyfriend’s old car. Some by sight, like videos of your old city that makes you want to go back. Others, by feelings.
And those feelings of failure and inadequacy had brought me back to grade school.
Memories of my school teachers suddenly rushed back to my mind like waves rushing to the shore. These waves brought with them a surprising magnitude of emotion that I failed to digest as a child.
I would have never guessed that I was going to finally encounter them at 20. I never expected how much pain the words of my school teachers could be.
Those words were many times louder in my Ann Arbor bedroom than when I physically heard them decades ago.
I finally recovered after going through many teary-eyed nights, multiple calls with my parents and a few trips to the therapist. During those trips, I also found out that I do have moderate ADHD, which explained why I was so difficult to keep quiet as a child.
But I couldn’t help but think, would my 5th-grade teacher still be hostile to me, had she known I had ADHD?
What if the memories that I remembered from school were ones of encouragement and affirmation?
What if I never had to hear condemnations and labels that tell me how improper or unacceptable I was as a child?
I can only imagine how much smoother my recovery would’ve been. I am grateful to have a wonderful support system of family and friends such that my mental health stint was relatively short. However, many people out there who are still struggling with self-acceptance and mental health issues are not as lucky.
So here’s my petition to all educators, both current and future ones, regardless of what kind of school or what grade you will be teaching: do not let your words abuse the lives of those you educate. You probably not feel it, your students most likely don’t know it yet, but your words are more powerful than you think.
Dear teachers, do not speak before you think.
Actually, do not speak before you think twice, or three times for that matter. If need be, do not speak unless you can guarantee beyond a reasonable doubt that what you’re speaking is nothing but life.
You might forget what you said two weeks ago, but the child you spoke to might not. And while you say things in the heat of the moment, but you probably don’t know what is going on in their lives; whether they have a safe place to go home to or a good family to take shelter in.
Dear teachers, do not despise things that you do not comprehend. Do not resort to scolding when you don’t know what to do with a child. Your life is supposed to be one of science and learning, not assumptions and judgments. Speak less. Listen more. You might end up learning a thing or two.
Dear teachers, after 10 years, only a few students will still recall how brilliantly you taught thermodynamics. Even fewer students will still remember what a ribosome does. But your students will surely remember the things you’ve said.
What are the things you’ve said to or about your students? What kind of words did you use? Were they words of encouragement, or of condemnation?
I never stopped being boisterous despite constantly getting in trouble for that. Frankly, I was simply stubborn enough not to change.
And I’m so glad I didn’t.
As I grew older, I learned that I wasn’t loud — I was passionate. I wasn’t disobedient — I was opinionated. My questions and debates were not disturbing — they were products of inquisitive critical thinking.
Dear teachers, it turned out that I was never inadequate or ‘a mistake’. What you saw as vices were actually qualities. They are responsible for all the wins I’ve had thus far. They got me where I am today.
I am proud of the person I’ve become, and I never would have gotten here had I listened to you.
Dear high school biology teacher, I am still dating the guy from that bus. I still fall asleep on his shoulder (…and more). He loves that I’m inappropriate like that.
Dear middle school headmistress, if I could take you to a party, I would. Then you’d meet all my wonderful friends who I cherish and support profoundly. Unfortunately, these parties don’t tend to keep quiet and I don’t think you’d enjoy that.
Dear 5th-grade homeroom teacher…To be honest, I have yet to start my own company. But if I ever do, I know that I am competent enough to make my employees thrive.
And when I do, you’ll know.