Thank you, Mrs. Lap

The following post was sponsored by the National Education Association, inviting you (and all of us) to participate in a digital love-fest honoring the teachers who have changed our lives. To participate in this week's Thank a Teacher program, share a photo on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter with hashtag #thankateacher. NEA will draw ten submissions and award $100 gift cards to teachers chosen. (Read more about that, here.) For today's post, I have chosen to write a letter to the teacher who was most influential in my life -- my 10th and 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Lapadula.


Dear Mrs. Lapadula,

When I think of you, I am quickly transported back to your warm and welcoming room, with its bookish smell and walls covered in photographs. Every year, on the first day of school, you asked your students to bring pictures of themselves to class so that you could hang them behind your desk along with the photos of your family. And so we did. And there we were. Our smiling faces between pictures of your children and grandchildren, quotes and keepsakes and all your favorite things. 
chill pose

We were just your students, but all at once it felt like more. You always made us feel like more. To you, we mattered. We were loved. 

When you're fifteen, that can be hard to believe at times. It was for me. And even though I came from loving parents who supported me unconditionally, I felt alone and misunderstood. By my parents. By ALL adults—except for you. 

You didn't punish me for being myself. For being candid and uncensored and unfiltered. You didn't dock my papers for questioning authority or hold it against me when I wrote about boys instead of Shakespeare. You gave me space to create, boundaries to bend, and above all, a haven. You were my shelter from the storm during the most tumultuous year of my young life. And the year after that. And the year after that. 

Everyone, if they're lucky, has at least one life-changing teacher. You, Mrs. Lap, were mine. You gave me the tools to help me find what was lost, boosting the confidence I lacked by quoting me on the white board and applauding my willingness to share poetry in front of the class. You instilled in me a love for reading and a willingness to reinterpret what had already been interpreted for me. You made me feel fearless during the time I was most afraid. And because of that, I was willing to share. To claim my words and my feelings, my voice and my song... 

I don't know if I would have survived high school without poetry and my journals and you. You, who let me eat lunch in your classroom when I was afraid the rumors would strangle me and the older girls might eat me alive. You, who sat with me after school, talking me off the various ledges of a life I struggled to see clearly. You, who looked me directly in the eye every time you spoke to me and every time you listened. You, who made me feel like the adult I was desperate to be, not the child I was trying to escape.

A great teacher is more than just a person who teaches, and you knew that intrinsically and instinctively. You knew that in order to reach me as a student, you had to reach me as an individual. And you did. 

It wasn't just me who loved you. We all did.

And I wasn't the only one you loved back. You loved us all. 

I cried in your class on the last day of 11th grade, and you did, too. You were my teacher and mentor, support and second mom for two years, and leaving you made me feel lost. And then you held my hand and told me that whenever I needed anything, to come find you.

And I did. I regularly clashed with my 12th grade English teacher, storming out of his class toward yours. And you let me in. You let me sit on the floor and do my work. You listened as I vented. You laughed at my inability to be the student you never forced me to be. And when a year later I decided not to go to college, you supported me and told me I would be just fine without it. As an Honors English teacher, grooming us for college was a part of your job. And yet. You trusted my gut because I did.

After graduation, I visited your class several times and we emailed each other for a few years, but ultimately we lost touch. And then, when I returned home to the local Barnes and Noble to read from Rockabye in 2008, you were in the audience. I cried and then you cried and then you did the thing you used to do when I was a teenager in your class: you looked me dead in the eye and told me that you loved me. 
May, 2008

I still call you Mrs. Lap even though it’s been almost twenty years since you were my teacher. That's the thing about great teachers. They never stop teaching us.  All these years later, you're still here, in my mind. You're still reading and applauding with my picture hanging behind your desk.

Thank you for inspiring me to build my own adventures out of life's assignments and reminding me to support young people, my children included, through the power of listening. Thank you for hearing me, for teaching me, for loving me, and for continuing to read and salute my writing. Thank you for being my shelter when I needed it most. Thank you for being a lighthouse for your students. I don't know what I would have done without one, without you. 
With love always,