I sit cross-legged amidst the towers of papers. I lift another page from the top of the stack in front of me. My hand-written reflections to an excerpt from Dave Eggers. A prompt for a poetry final project. And a graded vocabulary quiz below it.
They say smell is supposed to trigger the strongest memories, but perhaps old school papers are stronger.
I have saved every piece of paper from every class since the 6th grade. Now my parents are moving out of our 15-year home and I am left digging through the results of that habit.
Like an archeologist, I carefully peel each layer to unveil a snapshot of time. 2007 Quarter 1. 2004 Quarter 3. Further and further in time I go as the stacks get smaller.
I am 27 years old and just finished my PhD. Yet as I pull out each box of schoolwork, I am transported back to what it was like to sit in 6th grade social studies, 7th grade science, and 12th grade economics.
There are classes where I cannot bring myself to throw away a single piece of paper…
Like 7th grade biology with Ms. Krich. She was one of the best science teachers I ever had. Her classroom was filled with plants and a pond within an inflatable pool. She made us collect and catalog leaves, and taught us songs about vascular plants and their xylems and phloems. She played CDs of bird calls, and showed us how to observe diatoms under a microscope. She was also hard. I worked for Ms. Krich’s approval and she encouraged me and inspired my curiosity like no other.
Or 7th grade English with Mrs. Reynolds. She inspired me to work harder through her ample praise. She knew that I was that type of kid. She loved all of her students and created a nurturing learning environment that felt like a warm haven in the middle school years.
Or 12th grade Creative Writing with Mr. Dury. Mr. Dury prompted me to write more than I have ever written in my life, and, through that writing, come to terms with my 17-year-old life up until then. He introduced me to slam poetry, enjambment, and pacing. We read Dave Eggers, Ernest Hemingway, and a lot of Annie Dillard. Mr. Dury had us write and write and write. His earnest encouragement through it all was exactly what I needed to fall in love again with writing.
A good teacher never leaves you. If we had rings like a tree, our cross sections would reveal thick rings of healthy, rapid growth ushered in by the good teachers in our lives.
There are, unfortunately, a handful of teachers that were for me what no teacher goes into the profession intending to be: a thin, dark tree-ring in their students’ lives. There is the 10th grade English teacher that made me scared of putting pen to paper (until Mr. Dury broke through the fear). A handful of math teachers that made me feel incompetent. And the college freshmen writing professor that made me afraid of writing (ironic, no?). Coming across materials from their classes brings back all of the anxiety and misery I felt while their student. I quickly throw those papers away and hope the feelings will go away, too. But of course, it is not that simple.
The process of going through my old school materials embodies one of my favorite quotes:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
- Maya Angelou
The feelings that each teacher inspired emanate from every homework problem and final exam. I do not remember what each of them said. And I would not have remembered what they did were it not for the old school papers in front of me. But I will never forget how they made me feel.
It is a reminder that as you go through your day today, choose to be kind. Choose to be helpful. Choose to be empowering. Because people will never forget how you make them feel.
“Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
– Mark Twain
Oh… and go write a thank you note to a teacher in your life 🙂