Making amends

Five years ago, I taught a very difficult student. Believe me, when I say difficult, I mean it. This particular young lady made that year miserable.

It wasn't that she was a behavior problem. In fact, on the contrary, she had the outward appearance of being a model student. Yet when my back was turned, I always felt as if she was making fun of me. Often she would bring up a completely inappropriate topic with such an innocent face that I could never really pinpoint why I felt she had done it on purpose. Even when she would say something as seemingly nice as, "Tr. Julie, looking fancy today", I was convinced she was secretly ragging on my clothing choices. When I made a mistake in front of the class, I felt as if she was adding it to a growing list in her mind. Her comments would stay with me for weeks afterwards. 

In short, she was a teacher's nightmare. She was that one student who just got under my skin. 

She graduated and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I got more teaching experience and grew a thicker skin. I taught her younger brother (her opposite), and would cautiously ask about her from time to time. One of my colleagues reported that she was doing well at her high school. She was suddenly helpful, respectful, and a student leader. I had made my peace with the situation - so I thought.

Then, she got cancer.

Well, first her mother died of cancer. Her older sister had previously died of cancer. This student and her brother were taken in by legal guardians. Their entire lives started falling apart.

Suddenly, my former student was hospitalized. My entire school started rallying around her family. Staff took trips to the hospital, made them dinners, and started donating whatever they could to help out.

I made several dinners, and made a couple of donations. I signed the cards and contributed for the flowers. 

Yet I couldn't bring myself to visit her in the hospital. I knew it was the right thing to do, but our weird, tension-filled interactions from years past just stayed in my mind. What cutting words would she have for me, I thought, if I walked into her hospital room?

She's made an amazing recovery, and has now been cancer-free for a year. She's a senior in high school, heading off to a bright future at St. Joe's on a full scholarship to become a nurse.

I had coffee with her today. She had come by the school a couple weeks ago to see her old teachers, and I hadn't gotten the chance to talk to her. I felt like I needed to just come clean and apologize for not being there when she needed support the most.

The young woman I had coffee with today was completely different from that manipulative student of years past. We joked about how awkward and uncomfortable our relationship was, she admitted to kind of being a jerk, and I apologized for letting it get to me. She very gracefully dismissed my insistance that I should have come to visit her in the hospital, and said she was happy we were in touch now.

The sly, sneaky, provoking student was completely eclipsed by this sweet, compassionate, determined young woman. I couldn't believe it had taken me 5 years to be able to put my petty insecurities aside. After all, she was 14 when she was in 8th grade. I'm quite positive that few are their best selves when they are in middle school.

It was and continues to be a truly humbling moment.