Sixth grade is a trying year for any preteen. First crushes, boys are no longer icky and have cooties, sex ed, talks about periods and bodies changing, the beginning of school dances, a sudden desire for freedom but no real concept of what the big world holds, the want to independence yourself from your parents but without any means to – all things that make that year challenging and trying.
My sixth grade year faced some other challenges. My father had left. My mother was battling depression and drug addiction issues. My younger sister was facing debilitating anxiety. My world had essentially turned upside down. My home was no longer a safe haven or sanctuary from the challenges of school. School was now my home and I desperately looked forward to six and a half hours spent there each day. My life was now filled with terrifying words like “custody,” “court,” “lawyers,” “psychological evaluation,” “court ordered therapy,” “mandated visitation” and “unfit parenting.” I was scared, alone and confused. I longed for freedom and the ability to separate myself from the ugliness around me.
Additionally, my larger world had collapsed. On a Tuesday morning, about two weeks into my sixth grade year, the United States of America was attacked by terrorists. The Twin Towers, located a mere 20 miles from my house, were instantly destroyed – along with thousands of innocent lives. I remember the Twin Towers vividly, it was the landmark my grandmother used to always point out on our way back from trips, declaring “We’re home!”
And just like that they were gone. As was my naïve impression that the world was this safe place where wars were no longer fought, where people were at peace with each other, where innocent lives weren’t lost. I was suddenly acutely aware of the tragedies and misfortunes in the world and how in the blink of an eye the world could change.
I was no longer the innocent child with a mother and father who I could show my science fair project to, who could look forward to nights spent playing board games together, who could wake up each morning knowing everything in my small world was exactly as I had left it. I was no longer the naïve child who believed in fairness and equality, who didn’t think soldiers went to war and died, who thought their freedom and life was secure.
Sixth grade could’ve been a terrible year for me. It should’ve been a terrible year for me. But luckily, a woman came into my life that year who forever shaped my life. My sixth grade teacher was hands down the best teacher I ever had and one I accredit with shaping the person I am today.
We were a group of kids who had just had our worlds flipped upside down but she did everything in her power to make sure we felt safe. She helped alleviate our feelings of anger, resentment, confusion and insecurity. She took the time to understand each and every one of us as individuals, what personal challenges we were facing, and to recognize each of our personal accomplishments. The problems that each of us were facing, many of which were problems far too adult for eleven and twelve year old children, disappeared when we entered her classroom. We believed in ourselves and believed that we were each destined for great things.
I will never forget, two years later when I graduated from eighth grade, when she took me into her arms and hugged me and told me how proud she was of me. And then she took my face in her hands and told me to never let the world define who I was, to never let the problems I encountered stop me, and most importantly, to never give up.
Whenever I feel lost or want to give up, I think of her and how far I have come. I am reminded that I can’t let powers outside of my control stop me or change my attitude. When I think of her, I am reminded that I am an intelligent individual with a mind of my own and that I have never let anything stop me. Most importantly, I am constantly reminded to show compassion for the world around me and that being there for somebody when they need you most is the best thing you can do.
Thank you, Mrs. R.