“Teachers change students’ lives, they’ll tell you, when you begin your teaching career. What they often don’t tell you, is each of your students with change your life in ways you’ve never imagined possible. I taught high school writing for eight years, and I can honestly say ‘my kids’ saved my life.
When I was twenty-seven, during my third year teaching, I had a severe adverse reaction to a medication, the antibiotic Cipro, which caused me to experience central and peripheral nervous system damage, tendon damage, muscle wasting, and other issues. I had to take a leave from my job, which broke my heart, but I had to relearn to walk, to cut my own food, to wash my own hair – there was no other option. Immediately, the emails and cards started pouring in from my kids. I was determined I would make it back to them.
After three months, I was able to return and teach one single class. Someone had to help me carry my things, I had to go right back to bed afterward, but that one hour each day was the highlight of my life. No matter what pain or difficulty or frustration I felt, being around my students made getting out of bed worth it. They gave me hope and purpose and joy. They were my ‘why.’
Slowly, over the next two years, I worked my way up to teaching full time, having created new courses from scratch including my dream of a Creative Writing course for seniors. By the time the students who were my sophomores the year I returned from being sick were seniors, I was teaching a different elective every trimester, and so many of them opted to take all three of my classes to spend their whole senior year with me. When I saw my class rosters, I cried. I would now have the opportunity, the time, the energy, and the newly-created course material to really serve and inspire the kids who had watched me disappear into darkness, who had sent me get well cards, who had witnessed me have to sit through their whole classes rather than stand, who had been compassionate witnesses to my healing and who had been patient with my limitations.
While I had regained much of my health, I still had chronic migraines. My students were incredible. One day, on day two of a headache, I walked into class, turned on the lights and winced. One boy, without saying a word, walked over to me, pulled a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and handed them to me wordlessly. That right there? That’s love. Moments of compassion like that one is all it takes to change a life.
When these students were about to graduate, my heart ached in a way I had never quite experienced. Over the course of the year, in their journals for my classes, students had come out as LGBTQ, had shared their dreams, their deepest fears, their memories with me. They had written poetry, read their own poetry out loud, seen each other cry, laugh, and take immense risks. They had grown, and they had changed my heart forever.
Since this time, I have dealt with a severe concussion and a long recovery, a divorce, and beginning my life anew, from scratch, all over again. Yet something that has not changed? I still hear from many of these ‘kids’ regularly. Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to at least two of them via text or social media. They are woven into the fabric of my life, and I am immeasurably grateful. The love and respect we have for each other is a constant in an ever-changing world.
I am now taking a break from teaching to pursue my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and a recent assignment asked us to imagine what we would say to a group of seniors before they graduated and entered the world. I didn’t have to imagine. I immediately saw each face of each student I’d ever had the privilege of teaching over those eight years, and I considered advice I’d given them during long talks, what I’d written to them in their journals, what I hope they took away from their time with me, and what I wish I could have said to them but maybe never expressly did.
These ten pieces of advice are the culmination of all of that, given with love to them, and to you, whoever you might be – we are all always on the cusp of graduating from something, often at the beginnings of new chapters. I humbly offer this advice to you, too.
1: Find a poem that speaks to you. It exists. It’s out there. And when you find it, repeat it to yourself. Write it everywhere – the back of a paper menu, the corner of a chalkboard, the top of your grocery list. Let the words remind you, someone somewhere out there owns a heart like yours.
2: Walk barefoot in a muddy river. Feel the clay swallow up your feet, reclaiming your connection to the earth as the water rushes past your ankles, reminding you that you have choices. At any moment you can be still and firmly rooted as the world rushes past you. You can pull up your feet, lay back in the water, and rush with the current, flow, allow. You can walk out of the river and up onto a grassy hill and pioneer your own way, using the sun as your compass. All three are valid choices and at any moment, all are available to you.
3: Dance. Whether the music is in your head, blaring from a speaker, or being played live. Whether you’re alone in your bedroom, at the peak of a mountain, or on a crowded dance floor feeling the bodies and rhythms of the people around you. Dance. Remember the pure joy that comes from allowing the body your soul was given as its home to express the ecstatic beauty of feeling the current of life flowing through you.
4: Let someone love you. The sort of love you’re certain you don’t deserve. The sort of love that makes you look in the mirror and see your own face differently. You must allow yourself to receive, to see what they see, to be vulnerable and unedited and find they are still there. When they tell you they love you, resist the urge to shrink, to doubt, to curl up. Instead, let the words run along your skin like an electrical current. Let them wash over you like rain. Bask in them as you would the warmest summer sun, sighing with the certainty of your deservedness. Swallow them like a tonic and stretch. You were never small. Act like you’ve always known it. Take up as much space as you can. The heart grows as love is accepted.
5: Love in return. Love someone with a fierceness that makes you want to protect them, holding them with one arm and turning a sword on the world with the other. Love someone with the gentleness that allows them to grow, to thrive, to explore – be the sunshine that neither pushes nor demands but coaxes the loveliest sprout to push itself out of the seed’s shell. Love with completeness and depth that astound you, that makes you fully understand you truly can love every facet of a person, their darkness and their light and every thread of experience that runs between the two. Love in a way that grows exponentially — when you feel him breathe beside you in his sleep, feel that love, a love which only moments before you had been certain was as deep and big and all-encompassing as anything could ever be — grow.
6: Now turn that love inward. Seek and find your own heart as the hearth and home of your soul. Marvel at its strength – enough power to propel you through each day. Marvel at its loyalty – it has never failed to beat out its rhythm for you. The way you’ve always been able to see the light in others, see now the light that glows from the center of your being. Feel it engulfing you in its warmth and purity. You have never been alone.
7. Hike a mountain. Hike lots of mountains. Remember your ability to imagine the view from the peak as you stand in the vast shadow of the behemoth in front of you. Approach with your first step up the rocky terrain with that image in mind, with that goal, but also with the presence that allows you to notice the sound of your footfalls in the pine needles, the birdsong all around you, the glinting of the sun through the canopy above you. Keep your destination in sight but invest your heart in every moment of the journey there. And when you reach the summit, and you take a deep breath of the thinner air and feel a wide unabashed smile spread involuntarily across your face as you take on take in the glistening view, remember you were always capable of this. Always.
8. Wear sequins with your slippers and don’t wait for perfection to feel joy. When the chronic illness I’ve dealt with for years threatened to rob me of any type of New Year’s plans for the third year in a row, I decided it was silly to wait until I could go out partying to wear the dress I bought for the occasion. I decided it was silly to wait until champagne was on the menu again to use the good glasses. I put on the cocktail dress, a full face of makeup, and ordered takeout with my husband, drinking sparkling cider out of our finest crystal. It was perfect
9. Keep your teddy bear. The one you slept with as a child. The one that kept your fears at bay. Carry it with you from your parents’ house to your dorm to your hostel in Europe to your first apartment to your marriage bed. The things you take to bed with you for reassurance will evolve and change over time. And the night will come when you realize the thing keeping the nightmares at bay was never the bear, or your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, or the new lock on the city door, or the husband, but your faith. And you will kiss that bear on the nose and curl up with him again, your faith finally resting where it belongs – in yourself.
10. Watch for hawks. In the car, in my living room, in classrooms, I could always be found with my eyes turned skyward. The sense of dreaminess, wonder, and introspection that takes hold of me have always been the surest portal to the place where creation, connection, and understanding is born. Up is where the dreams are. Up is where the light is. Each time I find myself lost in this place; a hawk inevitably appears. On a telephone pole, in a tree, in the sky. Hawks, some say, are spiritual messengers. If so, perhaps they’ve always been telling me in those moments was to trust the guidance coming from within during those bouts of skyward contemplation. The answers are within us, and sometimes we must focus on the farthest point outside us – the vast and open sky – to find them.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elizabeth Mitchell. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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