My Math Teacher Saved my Life by Refusing to Let Me Fall through the Cracks

My Math Teacher Saved my Life by Refusing to Let Me Fall through the Cracks

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I was 12 when I thought everyone had given up on me, according to a personal essay written by Xandra Harbet a journalist appearing in Chalkbeat Tennessee.

Feeling like a burden to my family, my teachers and even the mental health professionals I’d seen, I had given up on myself, too. Sixth grade marked the first time I’d wanted to die, and seventh grade marked the first time I tried to make it happen.

Back then, I leaned into my persona as the weird, angry kid to push people away before I could get attached. I’ve since learned in therapy that it’s a common coping mechanism among those who feel rejected at home.

But there was one adult in my life who never gave up on me. One person who wasn’t scared off by my biting sarcasm, chaotic behavior, and tendency to shut down when I struggled with my schoolwork: my seventh grade math teacher, Mr. W.

Between coaching swimming and going for his doctorate, Mr. W was the busiest person I knew, but he refused to let me fall off the face of the Earth. Mr. W spent lunch periods painstakingly explaining each problem in my dreaded skill sheet assignment.

When he saw that this particular assignment led me to stop trying altogether, he decided to let me skip it, so long as I completed my daily homework. Some teachers refuse to make allowances for kids who think differently. But Mr. W’s accommodations turned a dejected student into someone who made an effort. And I was able to improve my grade.

Mr. W’s class was right before lunch, and I tend to tear up when I yawn, which was a common occurrence in math class. (Sorry, Mr. W.) During these teary-eyed moments, Mr. W would always make sure I was OK, despite the 20 other students in the classroom. That small act of care meant a lot.

My two-week stint in the psychiatric ward, which followed my suicide attempt, felt more like a prison sentence than a saving grace. Visits from Mr. W were the highlight of my time there, providing a dose of normalcy and lighthearted banter that allowed me to forget where I was for a little while.

I had plenty of teachers who cared about me in middle school and the years that followed. But, most of my relationships with adults — both in and beyond school — felt like obligatory transactions. It was different with Mr. W. He wasn’t trying to turn me into someone I wasn’t or even into an A-student in math. He just wanted to remind me that I mattered; importantly, he remembered to carve out the time and space to do that.

Every day, he offered me five minutes of undivided attention when I could vent, talk about my life, or recap in detail whatever TV show I was obsessing over that week. This continued the following year when he let me eat lunch in his classroom during his free period, even though he wasn’t even my teacher anymore.

Years on, I would occasionally visit Mr. W’s classroom on breaks from college, and without fail, he’d set aside five minutes for me. I still keep in touch with Mr. W.

If it weren’t for Mr. W, I might not be here today. On some level, he knew that his time made a difference for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote him a letter inscribed on the author page of my first published short story that he realized he had helped save my life.

Chalkbeat Tennessee

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