“You just don’t understand, Madame!”

She threw that in the air, her voice breaking.

It happened in June, on the very last school day. All students were all already gone, liberated at the first sound of the bell after the last final exam. Except for her. She came in, as agreed, to take a quiz marked missing since the beginning of March. It was a simple quiz but as I took a quick look at the paper she handed in, it became clear that she had not mastered the skill. I made a few circles hoping that she may be able to correct herself, but she was unsuccessful.

A very bright student who required accommodations per her IEP, performing at or above expectations most of the time, she was often absent and struggling to catch up on missing tasks. She strived to do her best in many other AP classes; mine was always the last on her “to Do” list.

“I just can’t NOT have an “A” in this class!” she exclaimed almost breaking into tears.

“Why do you think I don’t understand?” I replied, my own voice showing emotion.

“Do you even know what I am going through right now?” I wanted to scream as this scenario just started to unravel. At that point it became painfully clear to me that just as I didn’t expect her to know and understand my own struggles, I was not able to understand hers. Yes, I actually knew her story, followed her IEP, and worked closely with her mother, but it did not help me to understand what it was like for her, how it felt to be in her shoes.

Shoes I walk in

I took a breath and then another. If her prior performance was any indicator, given the time and less stressful environment, she would come in to work with me before or after school and ace this quiz in a few days or so. Who was I to play hard ball and possibly crush this girl’s college of choice dreams (she had big ones!) based on ONE quiz. At the same time, I knew that I could not compromise my professional ethics and enter the mark for performance that she did not demonstrate.

“Please, go home and enjoy your break,” I said to her, “I will excuse you from this quiz.”

She walked out of the room without a word.

I had tears in my eyes. I wish we had parted on better terms.

I struggled with this story for a long time. I shared it with a colleague and my husband to vent and to process it again and again because it felt that I was still missing something. I knew that being a teacher, I should not take things personally, but in this case I just could not help it; I kept thinking about it for days. I knew that I wanted to blog about it but at the same time, I was too emotionally attached to this story and it didn’t feel right. Little did I know that I would would find myself on the “other side” at the beginning of this school year.

My own child spent an entire summer going through what I will never wish for anyone to deal with. Returning to school and “just being normal” was her only wish. She did return to school this week – Yay! – but as far as “just being normal” part – this will take a long time and recovery road can be rough.  However, looking at her you would never know. Nor would she tell you that she needs help, accommodations, or any other special treatment because she doesn’t think it’s fair. She just wants to prove the world and herself that she can do it. I know she can. I also know that it’s not going to be easy.

As we resumed classes last week, I found myself looking at my students differently, with more attention to what they had to say to me and peers, to how they acted and daydreamed, being much more gentle in setting limits and redirecting, wondering sometimes about their personal stories and reminding myself that even if I knew those stories, it would not make much of a difference. Unless I walk in their shoes, I will never understand. What I can do is be someone who will take them for who they are, walk alongside them for fifty minutes per day encouraging them to be the person they are meant to be.

In some other classroom, my kid is walking through the door and I want the adults in her life to do the same, on the first day of school or the last.


One comment

  1. […] And it goes on. You do your best given the circumstances. So does everyone else.  Never assume. There’s much more than the face value. Everyone has a story but  you don’t necessarily need to know it. Just treat everyone like you would treat your best friend in crisis at all times. Accept the fact that you can have empathy but you will never understand. More on that in another post. […]


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