Tuesday, June 2, 2009

An unspoken hero--my daughter's teacher

My daughter ended first grade last week, and it was full of mixed emotions for both of us for many reasons. Though I am happy she will be moving on, it is with a heavy heart that I say farewell to her teacher. He has been a phenomenal educator as well as a good friend to us. Mr. T (to protect his privacy) has a true passion for educating youth, particularly foreign language learners. He searches for ways to help make learning fun as well as challenging for his students. He opens up to them, and shares personal stories to make his lessons come alive, and he utilizes technology on a regular basis in unconventional ways to hep the kids become more savvy. He emphasized the importance of living "green" in a variety of projects throughout the year. And he treats the students with respect and expresses genuine concern for their happiness and well-being. I suppose this is why my daughter selected him as the first person she chose outside of family and close family friends to disclose her HIV status to. In that, he will always be a special "first" for us, even outside of his other positive attributes.

One day, my daughter decided that she wanted to tell her teacher, Mr. T, about her status. I wasn't certain at first if she was serious, as it was something she said in passing. But then she mentioned it again. And again. And again. It became something she brought up daily. She was convinced that he wouldn't have a problem with her diagnosis, and felt very strongly about sharing it with him. I wasn't sure what to think. After all, although disclosure is not required where we live, I'd already voluntarily informed the Medical Director of our school district. I didn't see the need to also share with people at her school campus. But I didn't want to censor my child either. So after we discussed it at length, we decided that she and I would meet with her teacher during his conference period within the next two days and tell him. We chose that date because she felt an urgent need to talk about it, but Mr. T's policy was that he needed a minimum of 24 hour's notice to schedule meetings with parents to avoid time conflicts. This gave me a day to email him and set up the meeting.

But...life happens. The next day was crazycrazycrazy at work, and emailing him totally slipped my mind until I got home that evening. I emailed him and hoped for the best. But I didn't get a response until the next morning (the day of the hoped-for meeting). In his email, he stated he hadn't read my message until he returned to the classroom that morning, and unfortunately he already had a meeting scheduled with another parent. Could we meet the next day instead? My heart sank when I read his words. Earlier that morning, while dropping my daughter off at school, she'd happily reminded me that today was the day of our " 'portant meeting" with her teacher, and told me not to be late.

"Yes," I wrote, "we can meet tomorrow. I apologize for writing so late; my daughter ___________ really wanted to meet today, but I understand that you're already booked. Please tell her that I won't be coming by today. Thanks for accommodating us."

That afternoon when I picked her up, she skipped over to my car, hopped in, and casually mentioned while buckling her seat belt, "I told Mr. T."
"You did what?" was my reply.
"I told him that I have HIV. He told me you couldn't come today, so I decided to tell him by myself."
"What happened? What did he say?" I asked.
"He was fine," she said breezily. "Can we stop at Smoothie King?"

My heart was racing. This wasn't the way I'd planned it at all. I'd wanted to come in and have a discussion armed with my HIV handouts, with a list of URLs about HIV, and mentally prepared to answer questions. That clearly wasn't going to happen. Now what?

The next morning, I prayed on my way to the school for the meeting which now seemed to be in vain. I signed in at the office and Mr. T arrived punctually as always and greeted me with a smile. "The kids will be out of library in a few minutes, and then I can bring her to join us," he said, referring to my daughter. I told him that wasn't necessary; he and I could meet alone.

We sat down in the classroom and stared awkwardly at each other. I took a deep breath and started to speak, but Mr. T jumped in before I could say very much, and told me that he knew and that he felt very honored that my daughter trusted him enough to tell him about her status. He said that he thought she was a very brave, very special girl, and that he would respect her privacy. Then he asked if there was anything more he could do in the classroom to ensure that the other kids didn't get HER sick, pointing out the bottles of hand sanitizers on each desk and the Lysol and cleaning wipes located near some of the centers.

I was so touched by his reaction that I really couldn't find words at first. Then I thanked him for understanding, and we proceeded to have a very interesting discussion about HIV and adoption. We were so engrossed in conversation we almost went over the allotted time! Afterward, I thanked him and left.


And, well, nothing! He continued to treat her the same as always--kindly, but not like she was a danger, "different" or in need of pity or sympathy. One day, months later, she got hurt on the playground. She came home with a bandage over a scrape that had clearly broken the skin and bled. Apparently he cleaned the wound without any fanfare, bandaged her up, and sent her back to play. I didn't get any calls from work to pick her up, or any email as an FYI. It was treated the way it would have been if any child in her class had gotten hurt...as a minor incident.

So thank you, Mr. T, for all that you do, and for all the people out there like you. You judge a person by who they are rather than by three letters on a piece of paper. Thank you for helping to build my daughter's confidence this year and helping her to learn that disclosure deoesn;t have to have disastrous results. Thank you for challenging her in her schoolwork, and for the many conversations we've had regarding school, behavior, and various issues. I always felt that you respected me as a valuable part of my daughter's academic and overall growth.

Thank you for being who you are.


kristine said...

Thank you for sharing this. It brought tears to my eyes. A great teacher is one of the greatest blessings a child can have. I'm happy she had such a wonderful one for first grade!

Jennifer said...

That is so heartwarming. What a great teacher; she knew she could trust him and she was so right.

I hope my children will meet role models like that in their school lives!