Teachers, family members, employers - and in fact almost anyone who interacts with other people - have more power than they can imagine, to hurt or to support, and most of the time we’re unaware of the effect we have on others. So I was astonished when a former student contacted me out of the blue to tell me that in going through her father’s papers she’d found reports from when she attended Brattleboro Union High School.
Most were disciplinary reports, but there was one that brought her to tears. It was a comment card from me - back in the day, teachers were expected to write brief comments for each student every quarter. She even sent a photo of the note, and I saw that the comments were positive, encouraging, and from my point of view, totally routine.
But she thanked me for believing in her when she didn’t believe in herself. She told me that she’d been abused by other students, and my classroom was one of the only places at school where she felt safe; she said that she thought about the class often — even though she’d graduated more than 35 years ago.
I’d had no idea that her life had been so difficult, and her note was humbling. It jolted me into wondering what effect I might have had on other students over the years. And it reminded me that usually we don’t know much about other people’s lives, and how past experience can color their perception so an offhand remark can be dismissive and hurtful, or a casual joke can wound.
I now understand that without any intention of causing pain, I may well have made such remarks or jokes myself, and that because people hide their pain, I never knew what I had done. At the same time, it was inspiring to learn that my encouragement and belief in a former student had helped her through a difficult time.
Even though we almost never know how important routine respect and kindness may be, they can be among the most powerful sources of hope we can offer – both in the classroom and beyond.