I was in my last year of middle school when I finally met a teacher that enjoyed their job. Enough that he made every day an experience for our class. His name was Mr. Merkel, he was an energetic teacher that actually got middle schoolers interested in the curriculum. He taught English and was one of a handful of instructors I’ve had that wouldn’t always pick the people in class that put their hands up. He never did it in a mean way, it was one of those ‘what do you think about that?’ after someone had answered the question. He was also a little tough because he’d tease you about only reading the spark notes, or cliff’s notes version.
I was incredibly shy about raising my hand even if I knew the answer but he could see when I did (and when the other students that didn’t raise their hands did) so he would call on us. It’s an interesting time in your life, not quite an adult but not a child─ and the worst of it was, since my family was non-existent in my school life, my parents never showed to speak to any of my teachers. While teachers never seemed to question this, Mr. Merkel did. I didn’t have the drive to do homework (especially projects or group projects) but I did enough to pass throughout the years. Teachers are over-worked for little pay and are treated like garbage by parents and the schools. Favoritism runs rampant in any field─ especially in teaching fields. Not just favoritism among the principle and teachers, but the teachers and students. There’s a whole awful balance that continues to perpetuate in our schools. So this isn’t to trash talk all teachers, there are some good eggs too, it’s just based off of my and other’s experience over the years.
I won’t sugar coat it, I was a moody brat at times. I was awkward and didn’t know how to interact appropriately. With life being what it was in my childhood─ constant screaming, physical abuse, mental abuse, isolation from other children and events, etc.─ trying to relate to others was a challenge to say the least. Kids can be pretty damn mean when your parents don’t show up to anything or you are constantly late to school when busses were not an option. Teachers mistakenly took my actions as rebellion and teen hormones, but never made an effort to really see beyond that. I occasionally was asked over the years if my mother would come up to the school or answer the phone. My response was usually, ‘I can try’ knowing full well that she would not. I had to forge a lot of permission slips.
Something had been building at home that I had sensed that year. My stepfather had been behaving erratically and one day had called the police on himself. He would not open the door to the bedroom as my mom called repeatedly for him to do so. He only came out when the police arrived and willingly got into the back of the police vehicle. The police officer that came was very nice to him and even let him sit in the front seat of his cruiser. He was released that same day and a detective came by to speak with our family. He then gathered some of his things from home and went to stay with his parents for a while. It always confused me as to what had happened that day and what he had spoken about with the police department─ but years later I did hear the 911 recording between him and the dispatcher. Listening to the recording was heartbreaking because I realized that it was his way of reaching out for help.
School, despite the feeling of alienation and loneliness, was a safe haven─ especially the library. I spent many hours there just reading, any chance I could get. I passed all of my tests easily, but would frustrate the teachers because I would only do what made me pass. One day, in what I could only describe as a ‘come to Jesus’ moment─ I got called into a meeting with Mr. Merkel, the assistant principle, and another teacher that I didn’t recognize. Ironically enough, I was wearing one of those shirts that were ‘cool’ at the time that said ‘brat’ in bold letters. Witty as he was, he pointed out that I had been behaving just like my shirt said. Not knowing how to react I felt my face grow warm and my eyes stinging. It was the first time any of my instructors had seen me cry. I’m not a crier, never have been. It was awkward for a moment and then he cleared his throat and started talking. Obviously he was poking playfully at me, but with everything going on I mistook it as scolding since it’s all I’ve ever known.
He began with what you would expect coming from a teacher-student meeting, telling me that I needed to get my act together or I might fail my 8th grade year. I silently nodded and lowered my gaze to the table. I was ashamed especially since it was my favorite class and I wanted to impress my teacher. The vice principle was not happy about my reaction and told me to pay attention and answer the question. At this point I started shutting down feeling flustered and even more embarrassed. My face was on fire and the tears started flowing. I quickly swiped at them and then looked at her and nodded, responding with ‘yes ma’am’. Mr. Merkel quickly responded with, “it’s ok, I just wanted to let you know that I don’t like seeing such a promising student fail.” I remember the sound of the paper as he pulled out my test scores. Not just my English, but all of my test scores. He laid them carefully in front of me and crossed his arms. “Take a look at those scores, tell me what you see.” Confused I looked at the numbers. Most of them read 90’s and 100’s with one or two 80’s thrown in. Not understanding what he was getting at I responded, “all of my test scores for the year?” I asked it like a question, unsure if I was answering right. He started laughing and the lady seated next to my vice principle chuckled as well. Ms. Vice Principle was not happy. (I sincerely cannot remember her name. Ms. Hall maybe?) Mr. Merkel smiled and pointed at the tests, “you clearly understand the curriculum.” It was at this point I actually made eye contact with him. “You’re a bright girl, Chrystal. And you’re in your final year of middle school. I know I can’t control what you do, but I just wanted you to know that.” I was stunned into silence. An adult had just told me that I was bright. I had never been told that, ever. The words left my mouth before I thought about them, “do you really think so?” It was his turn to look stunned. He glanced over at the other ladies and then looked back at me. He hesitated but softly replied, “I do, but I wanted to know, if it’s ok with you, if you have been having struggles at home?” He put emphasis on the word struggles. Panic must have crossed my face as I looked from him to the other lady, terrified of who she might be. We had CPS called on us more than once and nothing ever came of it except after it was over I received a vicious beating from my mother. I still have scars from some of them.
He straightened and put his hands up, shaking his head, “oh, no no. You aren’t in trouble and we aren’t going to say anything to anyone. I haven’t introduced you yet, but this is Mrs. May. She’s department head in the English department at the high school you are transferring to. That is, if you pass.” (I purposely left out the name of the school for a reason.) I looked over at her suspiciously but said hello. “I think your home life is affecting your school work and whether you tell me that or not, you should know that I’ve brought her here for a reason.” I was silent but kept my attention on him politely. I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded. His grin was infectious and I found myself smiling too. “I’m going to recommend that you go into honor’s English and if you want to ask your other teachers, they could recommend you as well─ if you’re willing to put forth the effort.” My throat was dry and I was burning red from the attention but I managed to choke out a ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’.
I’ll leave out all the boring details and processes I had to take in order to get into honors courses, but the important thing to me, still to this day, was a teacher going out of their way to acknowledge me as not just some problem child. I’m a grown-ass woman, and occasionally even I get a little emotional over it. If it weren’t for that push and meeting, I’m quite sure I would have been in a much different situation.
This is an important lesson for all of us. Seeing beyond what a person is putting out there. It’s moments like these that have made me take a step back when dealing with a difficult or angry individual and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. While assholes are just that way because they can or want to be, hating the world─ for the most part people lash out when life has been less than perfect to put it mildly.
What about you? What teachers made a real difference in your life?