I’m always quick to admit that I wasn’t the best student growing up. My schools were predominantly black, so I never felt that pressure to be “twice as good” as anyone else in order to succeed. In our own ways, many students were succeeding–and those successes weren’t always academic. Some were artistic (mine were). Some were athletic. Some were social. Some people simply succeeded, earlier than most, at “finding themselves” and being unapologetically individual. For reasons I won’t entirely plumb here, I never quite cottoned to the traditional school model. I was smart, but not in ways that immediately translated to good grades. That didn’t start happening till college, when schedules were flexible, when I was living away from home, and when I had more autonomy about course selection.
Even though my grades didn’t reflect it, my intellectual experience in high school was deeply rewarding–and that was, in large part, because of a few dedicated, intuitive teachers. In ninth grade, I had Mr. Lesh for U.S. history and government. He was pale and bespectacled with a blond buzz cut–and he was the first person to explain to me the philosophical differences between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. He introduced me to the three-fifths compromise. And he made the process of a bill becoming a law comprehensible to fourteen-year-olds. I can honestly say that he was the first teacher I remember treating me like an equal and not like an underage person whose mind wasn’t fully formed. He solicited our opinions and treated us all with the same respect he extended to our parents and his colleagues.
Because of this, I usually felt a bit embarrassed when I passed Mr. Lesh’s classroom in later years. I felt like I’d failed as a student, like I hadn’t risen to the challenges he knew (and told me) I was capable of conquering. But he was always genial, never letting on that my barely passing grade had changed his opinion of my intellect or ability. Then, during the fall of my junior year, I wrote an article for the school paper about Spike Lee’s Clockers, and one day, Mr. Lesh and I had a long discussion about it. He held a different opinion of the film than I did, and there we stood, engaging each other’s points and raising new ones. In that moment, I knew that I was more than my GPA or classroom performance. I was a writer, a critic, someone worthy of being read not just by students but by one of the teachers I most admired. To this day, that remains one of my favorite academic memories.
The other has to do with that school paper I mentioned. During my senior year, I wrote about 75 percent of the senior edition myself, including a two-page, tiny-font spread that contained ten-year predictions for a number of my graduating peers. I did this under the direction of Mr. Melillo, who taught English and journalism and who was the school paper adviser. Mr. Melillo was a new teacher, an Italian in a close-to-all-black school. At times, he could be a little too committed to code-switching for us, a little too “down.” But that earnest desire to connect with us only added to his charm. In his class, I exceeded expectations. But it wasn’t the good grade I was able to earn in his course that made him such an inspiring teacher. It was his belief in my ability as a writer and his certainty that I’d succeed at it in the future. He knew his class was bigger than the A for me. He knew writing was going to be my career and genuinely believed that someday, I’d be widely read. I still draw on his confidence today, when my own faith in my chosen career path falters.
There were others. The teacher who submitted one of my essays to some contest then told me I’d won a copy of Kevin Young’s debut poetry collection, Most Way Home. The teacher who made me fall in love with Shakespeare, especially Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The teacher who treated my Chemistry grade like a pass-fail and let me eke by on memorization of periodic table elements, even though she knew I spent most of her class writing sonnets.
The common thread here is that, sometimes, teachers look out for you in ways you can’t understand or anticipate in the moment. It’s only from a vantage far removed from their classroom that you can truly appreciate what they’ve done. It isn’t just what they tried to teach you; it’s about them looking beyond who you are in a gradebook and really seeing what you’re capable of becoming. I was lucky. Now that I’ve taught courses myself, I know that there are a great number of students who spend their whole K-12 lives sitting in classrooms and going un-encouraged, unnoticed, and underestimated.