by Susanne Stefani
I’m often asked to write recommendation letters for students applying to college or for scholarships. Some of the colleges request three words to describe the student. While I often oblige with what I can assume are typical responses—bright, motivated, disciplined, compassionate—I recently chose a new descriptor: brave.
Knowing that his family would disown him, this student renounced a religion that had fit him poorly for years. He also shattered any remaining hopes of theirs by coming out as gay, a conversation that had been eighteen years in the making. He tore his life apart in order to reach for one he hoped would make him happier. When he graduates next month, he’ll walk across the stage with a smaller cheering section but a louder, prouder sense of self.
In the weeks after writing his letter, I’ve been thinking about the acts of bravery our students demonstrate daily. I sometimes feel sorry for people who aren’t high school teachers. (I sometimes feel sorry for myself, too, but that’s for another column.) Since having my baby, I’ve heard several of the typical remarks warning me about his eventual adolescence. I offer a perfunctory laugh, but what I know that they usually don’t is how students like the one above fill our hallways at McNary High School. How nearly every one of my students has admirable qualities that I would feel fortunate to discover in my son … or in myself.
Students tell me about losing their loves—girlfriends, brothers, fathers—who disappear through suicide, messy divorce, war wounds, illness, and sometimes, selfishness. They leave behind kids that, like the rest of us, are ill-prepared to deal with such blows, but like the rest of us, they slog through. Some immerse themselves in schoolwork because the pain at home is too intense, while others strike the opposite balance, crumbling in the back of class as their lives leak in and interrupt whatever they’re working on.
But they write me letters, they hand me their journals, they read their writing aloud before dozens of peers. They reveal themselves, and whether it’s to ask for help or to remind us that everyone’s battling a demon or two or seven, their willingness to expose the soot in their souls is, in my opinion, an act of bravery.
Some teens go further. I have a student who feels as though he must fill his father’s void in his sisters’ lives. He reads to them at night and sings them to sleep and then worries that perhaps he’s overstepping his role. He’s one of our finest drama students, but I suspect his acting isn’t limited to the stage.
A former student, a sophomore, is pregnant; she claims she’s excited. Another thinks he has brain cancer; he tells me he’s doing alright. One student cleans up blood each day when she gets home but earns A’s in her classes; her transcript says she’s okay.
They arrive with their lives hanging over them like those ominous rain clouds that follow cartoon characters. Yet still, they take risks in class, they stand up for each other, they pour themselves wholly into whatever they deem sacred, and as trite as it sounds, they truly inspire me. Sure, there are those that don’t handle life as well. Those who make foolish decisions and mess up opportunities. But we’ve all done that, and it takes courage to climb out of those potholes.
I can assure all who expect the worst from teens that I see the best of many of them every day, and it often has nothing to do with classroom performance. They bravely traverse their individual journeys with a grace and wisdom that many of us who pretend to know better could learn from.
Susanne Stefani is a writer and a creative writing teacher at McNary High School.