She is the only one.
None of my other students pay attention the way she does, noticing the quiet others, the ones who seem lonely. She learns their names, and, every time she sees them, says hello. Simple — hi, how are you, have a good day — and sweet. Soon, it’s the quiet student who greets her first. And smiles, always, at the sight of her.
Though I call all of my students “my lovelies,” she epitomizes it more than most.
When I cry before class this morning, she is the only one who sees. I try for her not to; I don’t want her, or any of my lovelies, to worry. Shoulder yet another burden belonging to someone else.
It’s rare for my tears to fall at school. Feeling them on my face now reminds me: before I’m a teacher, I’m just a person. Sometimes, life hurts, whether or not the bell is about to ring.
When it does, I lie to myself. It’s the only way I can lie to my lovelies. I’m okay, I’m okay. My hand rests on the doorknob, and I lie once more. I’m ready.
I breathe in as slowly as I can, wondering if that will actually make the tears stop. Opening the door, I wipe my eyes, plaster a smile, and step into the hall. I’m quick to greet lovelies as they pass. I wave. Laugh.
And still, she sees.
She stops. Steps into my path, hugs me. She holds me like everything will eventually be okay if she just keeps her heart against mine.
“Ms. Graham, why was you cryin’? Ms. Graham, what’s wrong? Ms. Graham, tell me how to fix it.”
Instead of answering, I tug her hand. She follows me through the teenage traffic to my classroom. Only because she asks more than enough times, I answer. Barely.
Someone I love is hurting, I tell her. Badly. Which hurts me. So much. Because there’s so little — nothing? — I can do.
When I breathe slowly this time, I know better than to expect dry eyes. It’s not until I exhale that I realize: her arm is still around me.
I know my guilt at this protection is no match for her insistence to give it. Instead of stepping back, I stay still. Listen as she says, “You’re crying because you care. And you care because you’re a great person, lovely.”
She needs to go to class. I need to teach mine. But she stays, stroking my back. “That’s what you tell us. That we care because we’re great. And you are, too.”
She looks into my wet eyes, not yet ready to step away. “Lovely, have a good day, okay?”
I open my mouth to assure her. Thank her. Tell her how much this means. But, again, she speaks the words I usually say to her. “Okay, lovely? Please have a good day.”
Kerry Graham teaches high school English for Baltimore City Public Schools and is a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.