Dear Mr. Dennison,
Maybe you don’t remember me—I sure hope you don’t. It’s been a couple of decades since I took your 8th grade Social Studies class. And yet I can still recite all the presidents of the United States in chronological order and this little ditty that perhaps you recall appearing mysteriously on your desk one day:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Will the take-home test have
Essay questions too?
Xo, your secret admirer
Yeah, one of my first and last attempts at poetry.
As you might’ve guessed, I was madly in love with you. Or at least the idea of you. Your almond-shaped eyes the color of sea glass. Your thick shoulders and sandy scruff of facial hair. Most of all, the way you were ignited and outraged by history. The way you implored us to really feel and learn from our collective past. You were—and I hope still are—an extraordinary teacher.
You tasked us with this new responsibility of not just memorizing battle dates and gross national products, but really investigating the facts that had been passed down to us. You brought in grainy videos of the Vietnam War and played Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” on repeat until our eyes puddled with tears. You demanded we explain FDR’s New Deal and how it still protected our local farms and workers’ unions. You had no tolerance for laziness and no time for excuses. I remember feeling embarrassed by how vehemently you strode around the room, jabbing your chalky fist in the air and kicking the radiator when we refused to pay attention. One time you even tossed an overhead projector onto the floor to get us to wake up.
I’ll be honest—I found that scary and sexy all at once. I’d never met a man like you before.
The fact that you were 20 years older than me and had a serious girlfriend meant nothing to me. Or maybe it was part of the thrill. Just like the shiver of excitement I felt when I hid on the third-floor stairwell of our school and watched you get into your black Thunderbird Fierro at 2:45 each day. Or the panicky jolt that filled me each time I folded another secret admirer note so tightly it was the size of a quarter. I loitered after class, pretending to have misheard a quote or searching for a dropped paper clip by your desk. I offered to collect papers and straighten up chairs just to linger in your cloud of musky cologne.
You leaned against the door, chatting with some teachers from the hall, or reminding kids not to litter. I always waited until you were fully engaged in conversation before tucking those roses are red’s just behind your coffee cup, stained with my nervous sweat.
What if instead of the Teapot Dome Scandal
We all just drank coffee
With a mug and a handle?
Xo, your secret admirer
Just to be clear, the notes were meant to make you laugh—at least at first. I even enlisted my best friend, Zoe, to help with the rhymes, telling her it was just a prank. (I think she believed me for a while. Maybe you did, too?) I thought if I could make you laugh, it wouldn’t matter how many years or life experiences lay between us. Composing those notes actually helped motivate me through a really dismal slog known as eighth grade—girl fights and acne, tallies of who was making out with whom behind the Dunkin Donuts. When I walked into class with a new poem in my pocket, I felt confident and serene, as if I had a bigger purpose than the rest of my pimply peers.
Also—and this is not a justification but—my dad died suddenly a few years before walking into your classroom. Which helps explain my attraction to a wise, compassionate father figure like you. You both played music constantly. You both loved driving with all the windows down and chewed on your lip when you were deep in thought. My dad was an avid history buff, too. On his night table was a stack of biographies—Churchill, Tubman, Malcolm X. We didn’t move them for years.
Again, I understand that I put you in a really uncomfortable situation, but I want you to know I was acting out of admiration more than lust.
A wisp in the wind
Like chalk dust
From lessons spinned…
As graduation loomed, I got moody and scared. My poems took on a weighty pallor, too. My notebook has always been the place where I can spit out my silliness and shame, my longing for the impossible. Even today, jotting down my thoughts is infinitely easier for me than talking. So, I scribbled page after page for you, confusing empathy for love. Confusing you for my lost dad.
One Saturday afternoon in early May, I had my mom drop me off at Macy’s at the strip mall two towns away. It felt so strange and wrong to be ambling through the Men’s department, eyeing pleated shorts and ties. I had no idea what your size was or if you liked golf. Even with all my babysitting money stuffed in my pockets I couldn’t afford to look at the rotating case of watches.
After an eon of indecision, I picked out a red Hawaiian shirt with bright yellow flowers and palm fronds. The cashier asked if it was a special gift and when I nodded, she folded it delicately and lay it in a bed of tissue paper, decorating the outer box with a thick, cloth ribbon. As I counted out my dollar bills for her, I half expected the security guards to come over and escort me out or at least ask me about my intentions. With the few dollars left over, I purchased a bottle of Coppertone suntan lotion to tape on top.
Mr. Dennison, thank you for opening that box and smiling warily as I revealed that I’d been your secret admirer all year long but obviously it was a joke because what kind of 13-year-old fantasizes about her middle-aged Social Studies teacher for real, right? That would be creepy with a side of weird sauce and definitely not my intention so I hope you thought it was funny and maybe we’ll see each other around at the town pool some time…?
Sad but true: Part of me thought at that moment you would break into my rambling monologue and confess your love for me, too. Or at least give me the tools to piece my broken heart back together. But you didn’t do either of those things. And for that I’m grateful.
Thank you for your decency and thoughtfulness. Thank you for not laughing at me—at least not to my face. For pulling out that hideous red shirt and saying nothing at all. You did not promise to wear it and think of me. You did not promise to even keep it. You wished me well—without so much as a hug—then turned away so I could melt in the hallway on my own. So I could truly feel the sting, and learn how to move on.
As I left your room that day I knew you weren’t my father, or my lover. You weren’t even my friend. You were simply a kind man. An impassioned teacher who believed we could learn from, through, and with our past. Though it’s taken me a few years, at least I’m finally understanding your lesson.
It’s because of you that I still know all the presidents in chronological order and sign up for This Day in History alerts. More importantly, it’s because of you that I read the news and call my senators for social action. It’s because of you that I dive into books about the Civil War and make sure our schools are integrated and teaching all sides of history. It’s because of you that I write down my most embarrassing thoughts and desires and share them as books—hoping they resonate with someone else who feels alone or misunderstood.
Mr. Dennison, you are the one who taught me that we are all a little cracked or broken and there is no remedy for our grief. We can’t memorize every historical fact or replay all the lost moments we’re mourning. We have to see ourselves as part of a continuum—exploring what came before us so we can appreciate where we are now and dive into whatever happens next.
Thank you, and I hope your today is great.
Image via Flickr/Bea Mahan