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A Letter to My Grade School Teacher: 5 Things I Wish You Had Known

I’ve been out of school for quite a while now. I’m considerably older than you must have been when I was in your class, but still depend daily on lessons gleaned from a handful of teachers, not just the academics, but the messages I picked up along the way. I’d say for me, you rank #2 for influence. In hindsight, I’ve often thought of how you and I really misunderstood each other. I’d like to take this opportunity to unpack some of that. There are some things I wish you had known.

One of my favorite stories to tell is about the time I told you my dad sold drugs, and my favorite song was Cocaine, by Eric Clapton. A few weeks later, I came to school with a giant lump on my head, and proudly demonstrated for you that I’d learned to spell “concussion.” Not too long after that, I told you about how my mom’s car could “really fly.” You seemed very concerned.

Let Me Explain

My dad worked at a distributing company. He delivered OTC drugs to the stores on his route and put them on the shelves. Dad was also in a band that regularly practiced in the spare bedroom my little brother would soon come to occupy. That is how the powerful grace of a Clapton guitar solo came to change my life. It’s also where I first heard the word “cocaine.” I only started to suspect it was bad because Mrs. Reagan was really in a snit at the time and wouldn’t hush about it.

"Just say no" carved on a tree
Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

I got the lump on my head in a rare and purely innocent bout of play with my dad (poor dad). He was swinging my cousin and I around by our feet when I slipped out of my socks and sailed over the couch, landing on my head. I had to go to the emergency room but managed to successfully whine myself right out of stitches.

Bless your heart! I meant the car could go fast! I’m glad I didn’t understand at the time that you thought I created some kind of fairytale world in my concussed little head, where I believed my mom’s car could literally fly. And that you were concerned about my “mental and emotional maturity.” I think it would have heavily impacted me. As an adult, I tell myself that moment of silliness must have been brought on by the more understandable stress of your previous assumptions about my family. You’d probably blush if you think of it now.

Whew! I’ve been holding all that for a long time! Now that we’ve laughed, there are some other, more serious things I wish you had known.

Sometimes You Were Rude

  1. You were the first and only teacher to ever raise their voice at me. I can still feel the overwhelming unfairness. I wish I could have told you that I didn’t know why I couldn’t pay attention either, and I was just as frustrated as you.
  2. More than once, you openly mocked my distraction. I remember being in shock that an adult would do something like that to a little kid, but sometimes we’d all laugh about it, and I’d be relieved that the mood was lifted. Now that I’m an adult, this infuriates me on so many levels! I wonder what messages my classmates absorbed about how I should be treated, or if they associated your reaction with my obvious disability and if that colored their perception of disabled people. I wonder if it colored my perception of myself? Wishing you knew how I still struggle, now more than ever, with the baggage of ADHD being a character flaw I should have been able to overcome….all by myself…as a first grader. You contributed to that.

You Never Seemed to “Get” Me

  1. We were copying an invitation to our PTA program from the blackboard. You scolded me when I asked if I could substitute “cafeteria” for “lunchroom.” I guess you thought I was being difficult, but I was trying to show you my growing command of synonyms. We did that dance a lot.

Always Assume Competence First

  1. Every time we worked on something independently, you would fuss if you caught me doing anything other than feverishly applying pencil to worksheet, and you always caught me. Did you ever think I might have actually finished my work? Reading comprehension was a piece of cake for me. I wish you had known that I was reading independently way before I landed in your classroom. Even math was a breeze at that stage. Tasks that required motor skills, like writing, took much longer and strained my fragile attention span.
  2. We saved our little milk cartons for what felt like forever, and collectively transformed them into a small city to show off on Parents’ Night. I loved collaborating with the whole class on a creative project. I traced the shapes of the milk carton and cut them out carefully, while most of my classmates cut and glued…like little kids. You lined up all of our tiny buildings, and mine was as neat as a pin! I feel like those alone could have canceled out all your assumptions, but if you noticed, you never said.

In Hindsight

I now understand that you were impossibly young, a first-year teacher. My mother probably intimidated you. That’s understandable. My family wouldn’t acknowledge my disability (to me anyway) for another decade, but I always knew something was up. We were halfway between the era in which I’d be lucky to be in public school at all, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. No one was diagnosing little girls with ADHD in the 80s, especially not one who was born in “compensation mode”.

Logically I know all of this, but stomach flops every time I think of how you were the first one who obviously noticed my ADHD symptoms. Teachers, for better or worse, can be equally influential to children as their parents. You saw me all those years ago. What if you had nurtured my talents instead of emphasizing your disappointment in me. If you had been on my side, would my life be different now?

Amanda Frazier Timpson

A Texan transplant to Southern California, Amanda Frazier Timpson could read and write before she could do almost anything else. That love of words lead to degrees in both English and journalism and has evolved into a tool for advocacy, enlightenment, social justice and storytelling. Achieving the full trifecta of disability: congenital, acquired and invisible, has commandeered a significant portion of her life. The reward for such an accomplishment is a commitment to discernment, compassion and empathy. Functioning as a disabled person in a society that was clearly set up without you in mind develops skills that, if you pay close attention, overlap nicely into every other area of life. The foundation of Amanda’s philosophy is that absorbing all possible wisdom from your experiences is key to living a fulfilling life.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Josh Peddy

    Truly insightful.

  2. TJP

    I have no words. The subject wrenches my heart.
    The writing of it was phenomenal, 💜

  3. Mark

    I wish my teachers knew I wasn’t “a lazy smart kid not living up to his potential,” I had undiagnosed ADHD-inattentive type. And that every time they sent home a progress report to that effect because I failed to turn in an assignment on time, etc., my mother, who had undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, would scream at me and call me all sorts of things and threaten to send me off to military school, and beat me with hair brushes or whatever else she had at hand.

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