Letter to 21 Year-Old Me

Dear 21 year-old me: You think you know English? Try explaining it to 11-year-olds. Then you’ll really know it.

This guest post appears in coordination with Teacher Appreciation Week and #TeachingIs, a social media movement seeking to elevate public perception of the teaching profession. Click here to learn how you can participate. This post originally appeared here.

Last month, I had the opportunity to return to my university for an alumni meeting. For me, the most exciting time on a college campus is the beginning of spring—when the trees are blooming and students are outside milling about, throwing Frisbees and sitting on blankets in the sun.

As I walked from the parking lot to the Alumni Center, I was thrown back to the early 80′s when I walked on that same brick path, heading to the education building on the other side of campus. I remember one day when I was walking behind UNC basketball great Sam Perkins, marveling at the span of his arms, a feature he was famous for throughout his college and NBA years.

For whatever reason, this memory has stuck with me, and every time I’m on that path, I remember the way Sam Perkins walked on that day, his arms hanging almost to his knees, as I walked in his shadow. I remembered it on this day, too, but I had other thoughts as well. I was thinking about how young and innocent I was back then, and how excited I was about teaching. I had my entire teaching career before me and, boy, how I thought I would change the world!

If I could go back to those days, I’d have a lot to tell myself about the teacher I would become and the journey I would take. Some of my experiences along the way have been predictable, but others, well… others have hit me upside the head out of nowhere. That’s why I wish my future self had been able to warn me.

Better late than never, I guess…

Dear 21-year-old me,

You will teach.

And you’ll love it just as much as you think you will. There are students who will wrap themselves around your heart—and stay there—throughout your entire career. You’ll love every poem and every story, every punctuation quiz, and every pronoun worksheet. Everything you loved as a student, you’ll love a zillion times more as a teacher.

You will laugh.

You’ll laugh every day at the antics of your middle schoolers. Those students will keep you young and informed about the latest pop trends and ways to sound cool around your own children and grandchildren. Sometimes they’ll make you laugh at a time when you’re trying to be serious. Understand this: they will win. You’ll laugh anyway.

You will learn.

Every year you’ll grow, maybe more than your students. They’ll keep you on your toes as you try to use the most innovative teaching strategies and engaging lessons you can think of. (Remember those teachers who stood in front of the class and talked, talked, talked when you were in school? Yeah… it’s not like that anymore.) You’ll look back after 30 years and realize you know so much more about people—and about subject matter, which is responsible for the all-nighters you are pulling right now.

You think you know English? Try explaining it to 11-year-olds. Then you’ll really know it.

You will be blindsided.

In your first year, you’ll realize that some students choose not to learn, and some of those students have no one at home who cares if they learn or not. Later, you’ll learn more about the apathetic, and even the abusive, parent. You’ll teach children without homes and children who have one set of clothes. You’ll teach hungry kids and sick kids. You’ll sit with one student in the rubber room of a hospital after a suicide threat. Your heart will crack when one of your favorite characters from third period ends up in jail. And then it will break in two when the student you worked so hard with shows up on the news for murder.

You’ll find out that there are teachers who don’t love the job—or the kids—like you do. You’ll walk around in disbelief that they didn’t choose another profession. You’ll wish they would.

You will have regrets.

You’ll ask yourself constantly what you could have done to be a better teacher. You’ll wonder how you could have worked harder, crammed more hours into the day, made a difference. You’ll wonder what words you could have said that would be louder than the other voices in your students’ ears. You’ll wish you didn’t take a sick day now and then just because you’re exhausted. You’ll wish you never were exhausted…

You’ll want every single sick day and snow day and two-hour delay back so you have more time to make an impact on a child.

You’ll look back at 30 years of student faces and smile. You may cry a little. And in your mind, you’ll wrap your pretend Sam Perkins arms around every student you ever had and thank them for the honor, the privilege, and the joy of being a part of their lives.

Maybe one of them will remember your classroom… just a short walk on their own path.

Just remember: sometimes, short walks on paths are memorable.

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified Teacher who serves as a Regional Education Facilitator for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, Cindi served as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year. The author of “Finding Mrs. Warnecke, The Difference Teachers Make,” she was also a contributing author to “Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future.” Cindi blogs at cindirigsbee.com.

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  • MelissaRasberry

    Oh, they remember you, Cindi!
    Cindi, thanks so much for sharing this poignant reflection (and not just because of your Carolina references — #GoHeelsGoAmerica)!

    Just recently, I received an inbox message on Facebook from a mom of one of my former third graders. Her daughter was graduating from college and they both wanted to be sure I received an invitation. Immediately, I began crying. This mom couldn’t truly fathom how much this message meant to me.

    You see, it brought me full circle to my own educational experience. I, too, reached out to an early grades teacher when I graduated college. I wanted Mrs. Moore, my first grade teacher, to know the impact that she had on my life. I was always a shy child (hard to believe now – smile), but Mrs. Moore made me love school and feel excitement every time I walked into her classroom. To have a young lady remember me in the same way was humbling and heartfelt. I will forever be grateful to Alexis and her mom for taking the time to share their appreciation with me.

    I never became the master teacher that you are, Cindi, so I feel certain that there are hundreds of young adults across NC and the US who have experienced the magic of your classroom. They love you, just as you loved Mrs. Warnecke! 😉

  • Cindi Rigsbee

    Back at you!

    Oh, Melissa,

    You are SOOOO a master teacher! I have learned so much from you over the years myself! I love your story about Mrs. Moore…everyone…EVERYONE…has a Mrs. Moore, and I wish they all would share their stories. Teachers do make a difference.

    And, yes, #GoHeelsGoAmerica!

  • LaurieWasserman

    Wonderful words from a wonderful teacher


    You have once again written something so poignant and heartfelt that touched me deeply. As I read your words I thought how many of your stories were mine. I’ve laughed at the funny things my students have said (they don’t realize how much we need to do that!),  cried with joy and happiness when they have accomplished something they never believed they could ever do, and sobbed when a student died or was sent to prison for murder.

    One of the best moments for a teacher is when a young man or woman comes to see us and says those famous words that melts a teacher’s heart, “Remember me?”

    thank-you dear friend,

    Love, Laurie (Ethel to your Lucy)