If you’ve ever received a card from me, you’ll notice that I often sign it with the closing “Fondly, Amber.” I have adopted this ideal when I’m with my students too. When we look at our students fondly, we are enjoying them, and we are seeing them as we’d all want to be seen, in our best light, on our best day. In my first few years of teaching, I learned from amazing teachers who mentored me both officially and unofficially. I found friends and inspiration. However, one of the biggest lessons came from a teacher I barely knew named Jean McCarthy who signed her notes “Fondly, Jean.”
Jean was gruff. Whatever you are imagining when you hear that word right now is true. She smoked a pack a day, and she had the cough and raspy voice to prove it too. She didn’t smile often, and she worked with the kiddos who no one else wanted to. No one said that, of course, but it was understood, even by me, that her job was very different from mine. Nowadays we’d probably say that she was working with the “ED” kiddos or the “at risk population.” Then, I just knew that everyone was glad that Jean had the job and not them.
Her classroom was far from mine, kind of tucked away down a hallway, where disruptive students could have a little more privacy, I used to think. Truth be told, as a brand new teacher, I was always a bit scared of her. She never really spoke to me, but we shared mutual teacher friends, and occasionally I’d find myself sharing a lunch on a professional development day or sitting next to her at a department meeting. I myself had fallen comfortably into a position teaching AP Literature, and I felt pretty darn good about myself. My students were bound for top tier colleges, drove cars that were nicer than mine, and had tutors and involved parents. I was lucky.
My husband was offered a sizable promotion in Buffalo, New York, far from our cozy New England town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Young and naive, I gave up my tenured teaching position, simply, I think ,for the adventure of it all. The catch: my husband had to move in early January, and I’d need to stay behind to sell the house while he got settled in the new job. I don’t recommend this, by the way. Nevertheless, spring came and I sold the house. Then, I had a new problem. Where was I going to live until the end of the school year?
As I sat in the teacher’s lounge for lunch, bemoaning this new situation, Jean was standing with her back to me, checking her mailbox. These were the days when they contained memos and real mail, not the usual junk mail we see now. She said quietly, but firmly, “You can come stay with me until you move.” She had not turned around to say this, and I honestly thought I imagined it. When I didn’t say anything, she turned around and said, “It would be ridiculous to pay to stay anywhere. You’ll come to my house.”
I stammered something, and I went to find my friend Mary, who was our mutual friend. Mary convinced me to trust her, and swore I’d love Jean once I got to know her. Mary was (and is) my mentor, and I was pretty broke at the time, living on my new teacher salary and absorbing the costs of moving, so I reluctantly agreed. I sat in my car outside Jean's house a week later and could barely bring myself to go to the door, but circumstances as they were, I was temporarily homeless.
The first night, we watched the Red Sox on television, but she had the volume turned down,and we listened to it on the radio instead since she didn’t like the television announcer. She chain-smoked and wrote cards. I asked her who they were all to. That is when I learned who Jean really was and what kind of teacher she actually was.
Jean was writing cards. She’d tell me about them as she addressed them. Some were current students who were going through a rough time. Another was for a student who was going to graduate from college. One was in the hospital for a suicide attempt. Others were from a decade before. As the days turned into weeks, I was astonished by how many students she wrote cards to. As we got to know each other, she’d tell me a bit more about the situations, and I realized I didn’t know the first thing about what she was doing down her lonely hallway.
On my last night, it was raining and storming. We were, of course, watching the Red Sox, and there was a knock on the door. Jean didn’t look surprised. She scooted over to the door, opened it, and standing there were two drenched teens. Jean didn’t flinch as they dripped all over her floor, or bat an eye when they both started talking so fast and over each other that it was impossible to tell what they were saying.
It came in bits and pieces over Loganberry and sandwiches. She was pregnant. He was the father. They were 19, both former students. They had told her parents, and they kicked her out. His mom didn’t have room for them both in her apartment. He’d already been sleeping on a couch. Jean listened and nodded, giving them towels, refills, and space to be heard and seen, to be looked upon lovingly, fondly. After several hours Jean had worked on a preliminary plan to help them figure things out the next day. The two left, hugging Jean for a long time before they walked to their beat up car.
Jean and I didn’t talk much that night, exhausted from it all. I was in awe. She was a very quiet hero, taking in strays, seeing people who needed her and helping them. She left the next morning before I even woke up.
Jean was, as it turns out, not one for goodbyes. It was my day to leave for New York. On the table was a note:
You will be missed. New York will be lucky to have you. I know that you are a good teacher. Always remember everyone could use a champion. PHS will not be the same without you.
I can’t really explain the impact that those four weeks living with Jean had on my entire career. I’d come to see that teaching is more than content, more than great AP scores, and successful students who shine. It is knowing that students want someone who will look upon them fondly and that you can change lives by the acceptance you extend students.
When I think of “Teacher Appreciation,” I think about Jean. The greatest form of “Teacher Appreciation” I’ve ever seen was students who returned to seek counsel and comfort from someone who had changed their lives. I sign my cards, “Fondly, Amber” to remember that it all begins and ends with seeing people in their best light, as their best selves, even on their worst day--including our students.
As we return to school in the fall, I know I am not alone in wishing for “normal,” but I am certain that we should look fondly upon the students, making sure they know how much we care, not focusing on “learning loss,” but seeing them in their best light, even as many have just survived their worst days.