Resilience is the word...

Teaching middle school is a little like being in the middle of a hurricane. There are moments of silence and calm before the storm comes through with raging forces. You never really know when you are going to be hit and what direction it may come from. The school I teach in has a high poverty rate, with over 80% of our families living below the poverty line. We have a large group of second language speakers and more and more students coming to us from refugee camps, our school being their first US school experience. It is both humbling and inspiring.

Resilience is something that can't be taught, but many of my students are resilient. Their lives are in constant motion, from literally moving on a regular basis to the movement within their household, people coming and going. At lunch today, one of my sweetest (and favorite) students, an immigrant from Ethiopia, came to me (and my teaching partner in crime, Rosemarie) and said, "My favorite teachers!! I am your daughter," pointing to the two of us. My response was a simple, "Yes, you are" and she smiled, hugged us and walked away.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life it is that a little bit of love can go a long way. When I was in middle school, I was one of these students. At that time, I was living with my mother, in what I can only call the beginning of her dark years. My mother had been married for about 6 years to my step-father and they had decided to split the summer before my 6th grade year. We sat on the floor, my mother, dad, brother and I, and they gently told us that we were not going to be a family anymore. We had just moved to this new house, we had a pool and a yard, and now we were not going to be together. I remember my heart breaking.

The next year I started 6th grade at a new school. I had my first man teacher, Mr. Burdick. I remember I was in amazement. I had never had a man teacher before and I think the timing for me was right. I needed this normalcy in my life. My own father, who is an amazing and wonderful man, I only got to see on weekends. Now I had my younger brother to worry about. He was much younger than me. So, Mr. Burdick's entrance into my life was a gift. I was awkward, and tall (5'6"), and my mother believed in ruling by fear. I was already taller that her. ("Height don't make might," she would threaten.) This year, my 6th grade year is when my mother started drinking heavily and began experimenting with cocaine and other recreational drugs. By the end of the year, she was thin and looked like the cross between a scarecrow and a poorly made clown.

Entering into 7th grade was even worse. I was now in my 4th school in 4 years. My world continued to be upside down and my mother was slipping farther and farther away. She talked and acted crazy and many nights wouldn't even bother to show up until the wee hours of the morning. My brother, in elementary school, needed some kind of stability so I tried to provide it. I gathered coins from the couch and rode to the store to buy mac and cheese if we were out of the government cheese or generic food that I could cook. When she was home she was strung out. By the end of 7th grade she had a new live-in boyfriend. He was, of all things, a drug dealer. Special. Just the kind of guy you want around your children. I used to steal speed and pot from him and sell it in the park near my middle school to make money to buy food and things for my brother and I. Yes, I was a 12 year old pusher. Not something I am proud of, but sometimes life throws you a curveball you have no idea how to get by. A stroke of luck had come to me in middle school by the name of Mr. Jiminez. He was my science teacher who seemed to know more about me and my life than I could imagine. He used to tell me, "Shannon, this doesn't have to be it. You have so much ahead of you." He got me to believe that I could do more, be more.

As I went through my life, there were others that led me along the way. But today, I guess I was struck by this, resilience is an amazing thing. I watch my students, knowing that I was one of them, wandering through the cloud of my life, hoping that someone could lift it for me (or show me how to lift it for myself) so that I could see. I wish I could go back to my middle school self and give her a glimpse of my life now so she could see that all the sacrifice was worth it.

My mother has been gone for almost nine years. My brother and I talk about our "cartoon life" growing up because it doesn't seem to be real, but I know if I really could tell students about me, the middle school girl that is still deep inside me, wanting to make a difference in their lives, they would see that we aren't so different...that I have actually come full circle to show them that their resilience can lead them to great things.


  1. You are not just a math teacher Shannon, you are teaching life, we are all lucky to have you - don't ever forget that!!

  2. Well said. It is teachers like you who get kids and help them through the storm.

  3. Wow. It's amazing how you've gone through so much and became the person you are. This is exactly the reason I've always wanted to become a teacher. To be there for kids that may not have anyone else there for them. You were that person for me. As much as I didn't show it in high school, I've always appreciated you and saw how you were with your daughter and always andalways wished I had a mom like you.



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