It is 1979. I am 17, and I am lost.
I have left school, returned to school, excelled at school, failed at school. I change cities to get a new start. I roam from one relative’s house to another. I see social workers and psychologists. My contemporaries are moving on smoothly and advancing in their courses of study. My own life, however, is in turmoil and beyond my control. I feel weightless, as though I have no core. I’m disconnected with no strength, nothing that gives me a sense of attachment to anything. I fade in and out of my own life—skipping school for 33 straight days, hiding out in the closet of my bedroom, waiting for my widowed dad to leave the house so I can run the streets.
I am invisible to the adults in my life. No one sees me. No one. This bothers me unless I am high—then nothing bothers me.
Then, I wander into the “drama pit” at McNally High School in Edmonton, Alberta. A teacher there sees me—she really sees me. Theater gives me the chance to express my interior demons. At the same time, I find a home with a foster family who holds me tight to them, and things begin looking up. At school, my drama teacher cares for me, cares for all of us. That teacher is my advocate. During a school open house, my dad says to her, “Jeanie is so wild! I wish she would settle down.” My drama teacher replies, “She’s a great student. Jean’s doing well.” I am elated.
Until that night, I cannot remember an adult speaking positively to me or about me in a decade or more. When she did this, she went beyond kindness; she made me visible. When I became visible, I began to hope. When she gave me hope, she saved my life.
There were many other times this teacher gave me hope about the adults in my life. When I asked her to hold my $3.35 while I went on stage, and forgot to get it from her at the end of the school day, she came to my house that evening to return it. That’s the effort that’s required to be a good teacher. That’s the model.
I was inspired to become a teacher.
I am the Advancement Via Individual Determination teacher at my school. AVID is a college readiness system that helps students who come from households in poverty. Many of my students consider me their “AVID mother.” I care for and support my students by reaching out to discover who they are—their interests, their home situations, their hopes and dreams for the future.
Many students feel like they are disappearing from their own lives. Stripped of all power and in pain, they feel that their lives are beyond their control. My first priority as their teacher is to see them. I make the time to get to know them. I dedicate part of each day to nurturing relationships with students.
I’ve established rituals like greeting each student at the door in the mornings. I look them straight in the eye and work to know them through surveys about hobbies and books they are reading. I call home with good news and commune with families face-to-face over coffee and sweet bread. It all makes our relationships much more valid and authentic.
I help students get reconnected to their lives and solidify their tenuous senses of belonging to the world. While my journey was protected in ways by my white middle-class privilege (we always had food and electricity), my students’ lives are often further complicated by the painful brokenness of harsh immigration policies or lack of material comfort (homelessness, death of a family member or incarceration).
I can offer my students the opportunities to articulate their personal concerns in a scholarly yet personal way that gives weight and power to their perspectives. I can help them give their lives definition with my personal care and concern. If I can see them, then I can give them hope. Hope can mean change.
Hope can save their lives. It continues to save mine.
Jeanie Greenidge has taught for 16 years at O'Banion Middle School in Garland, Texas.