A Letter to My Students (circa 2010)

I maintained a blog on Open Salon when I was a high school teacher from 2008 to 2011 (when I was laid off). It’s gone now because Salon decided to ax the Open Salon feature. I was able to salvage most of it using the Wayback Machine (nothing is lost forever).

One item I retrieved and reread just now was a letter that I’d written to my students prior to Spring Break 2010. I post it here as it was written:

April 1st, 2010

To my students before Spring Break:

You’ve survived Gilgamesh and Zeus, The Joy Luck Club and morality plays, the Koran, Voltaire and Ethiopian poetry — and now we’re in the thick of Phantom. Be proud of yourself because you’ve stuck with it — but this letter really isn’t about your grades or what we’ve read.

You continue to tolerate my sarcasm, my hair (which I won’t cut), my sideburns (which I won’t shave), my obsession with The Simpsons and my refusal to tell you what my religion is or isn’t (because it’s not appropriate!) You put up with my love of drawing and creative writing, both of which I will continue to force upon you in future assignments, and my determination to make you question everything that I say. For these things I thank you.

Yes, your report cards go home today — the day before Spring Break, which will either make your Spring Break fun or horrible, depending on what your grades look like. Remember — you earn your grade in my class, it is not given, good or bad. If you end up with an ‘A’, don’t thank me — thank yourself. If you end up with an ‘F’, don’t cuss me out — put that responsibility on your own shoulders.

You all have had, during the course of your high school career and also this year, teachers who have decided to leave this high school. They are all good people who certainly felt that they would be more useful elsewhere, but know this — I am not leaving. Not this year and I will be coming back next year.

Whether you like me or not, whether you think I’m a great teacher or I’m a crazy guy who shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom, whether you think that Phantom is a great book or it’s horribly boring — everything, everything that I do in the classroom, from the lessons I plan for you to the things I say and the literature that I choose, is for you. Nothing makes me happier than talking for hours about literature, history, religion, art, music, etc. — and now I have a job that lets me do just that (and my wife couldn’t be more thrilled).

If you’ve made it through the letter this far, congratulations — and I’m sorry for rambling.

Know one thing — whether or not you remain in this county after you graduate is your choice but there will always be people who will attack you for who you are or what you believe in, even people who will make fun of you or mock you just because you’re from this county. Don’t engage them and do not — please, do not fight. Violence is never worthwhile and I’m not just saying that because I’m 5’8” and 125lbs — I mean it, you’re better than that, all of you.

Society has expectations for you — some are good and some are bad. Some people drive by this high school and think they know every single one of you; they have their minds made up that AHS is a failed school and that we (teachers and students) are failures, too. You know, and I know, that these people are wrong. Do not live up to their standards — I expect nothing but truth and success (whatever that looks like) from you.

Maybe this is a letter that I should give you on the last day of school before summer, instead, but this is the beginning of the last 9 week session — and I just wanted you to know these things now.

If we (students and teachers), in the middle of this economic recession, with so much hatred and anger and apathy floating around this country, sit around and do nothing, we are, in my mind, committing a crime. I won’t let that happen and I don’t expect you will, either.

But, to come to a close, this is your Spring Break. We’ve all earned it. I should not have to tell you this, because I hope that my actions speak for me, but, just so you know — I love (yes, that’s right, I said it) and care about each one of you. At least know that.

Your teacher,

Mr. J

p.s. — some of you may not notice, but each Friday, as you’re leaving, I always say to the entire class, “Have a good weekend, be safe, stay sober.” This may sound strange to you but I want you to know the story behind it. During my junior year of high school, 2001–2002, I had an AP History teacher named Mr. Pruitt. He was older, maybe in his 60s. He was a funny, kind and brilliant man. He was our teacher when the September 11th attacks happened and we looked to him for support. In mid-November, on a Friday, we were leaving for the weekend and, as always, he said to us, “Have a great weekend, be safe, stay sober.” We’d gotten used to it, by then. He died that following weekend of a sudden heart attack. The last thing he ever said to me, to any of us, was “Be safe, stay sober.” I say it now, each Friday, to honor him and to honor all of you — but let me add something to it.

Have a great Spring Break, be safe, stay sober and don’t hurt anyone.

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