Dear Gabby: A Letter to a Favorite Student
I know, I know. We’re not supposed to have favorite students. So maybe I should say “special”, but whatever label I use, the truth is Gabby* is one of those students I will always remember. No matter how equitably you dedicate your energy and time to your students, there’s always one or two each year who connect with you in a deeper, more profound way. For me, these students are often the ones who most challenge me, at least initially.
When Gabby entered my class at the beginning of third grade, her behavior reminded me of scenes from The Exorcist. Her love of gymnastics would come out through back bends, hand stands and cartwheels at random times and whenever she was feeling emotionally overwhelmed. In those early days this would happen frequently. She would cry uncontrollably, scream, roll around on the ground or stand by the classroom door, completely shutting out any of my directions.
But something changed. I’m not sure if it was my visit to her home, setting up the “take a break” area, implementing an individual behavior chart, or some combination of the three, but her outbursts all but disappeared. From that point on, she was one of the students I could always rely on to share an interesting idea in a class discussion or wow me with her writer’s voice. At the end of the year, I could hardly believe how far we’d come.
Then this year, the two under-enrolled third grade classes at my school were collapsed into one fourth grade class. Gabby went from one of 16 students with me, to one of 29. This number is pretty average for New York City classrooms, but for Gabby it was not a good fit. I saw her in the hallways often, sometimes cartwheeling or back bending, and I worried. Then two weeks ago her mom made the difficult decision to pull her from our school. There was so much I wanted to say to her before she left, but there’s only so much you can or should say to a fourth grader, no matter what relationship you have. But if I could have said more, here’s what I might have said:
You are powerful. You are brilliant. You are incredibly creative. No matter what, remember these traits.
I am scared that sometimes you don’t see these traits in yourself. I worry also that other teachers won’t always see them. I hope that by seeing these gifts in yourself, you will give others a better chance to see them.
You have a rebellious side. This is a very valuable character trait for our messed up world. But it is not very valued in most of the classrooms you will learn in. I know I regret times when I did not value them as much as I could have. So please take care of yourself. Be careful of when and how you choose to speak up or fight back.
It is deeply unfair that I am asking you to contort yourself to the needs of a rigid system. I apologize for that. It is my hope that you can nurture that rebelliousness like a spark, and at the right times it will be there, and you can let it burn as brightly as you want.
Ultimately though, if you ever have to choose between speaking up for yourself and your deepest held values, or being “respectful” through silence, I hope you will put yourself first. I know your family will support you in these moments too.
As you get older, it will be harder and harder to avoid the temptation to “be cool.” You make friends easily and this is good. I also hope you will always remember to be yourself. It is okay and sometimes preferable to “be weird.” I hope you will continue to nurture the part of you that is most creative and imaginative, even if it means coloring outside the lines or not fitting in. I want to apologize for the times I prioritized quiet or conformity over nurturing this creative expression.
Ultimately, I don’t know if I have much to offer other than these cliches. I just hope you know that you have inspired me with how far you’ve come, and I hope you will only continue to move forward. I have no doubt that you will accomplish great things, and it is believing in students like you that makes teaching worthwhile.
*Not the student’s real name