When I crossed out of childhood, there was no single event; it came on gradually but definitively. I was in seventh grade, 12 years old. My internal life had become complicated and emotional and confusing, and navigating the middle school hallways and lunchroom required a new kind of social agility and insight.
Thanks to impending adolescence, my brain was attuned to every boy in the room (and whether he had looked at me and what he might think) and the movements and new feelings in my newly gangly body were mostly out of my conscious control. While the books I was devouring and the conversations I was having with friends reflected a degree of depth and self-reflection that were far different than those from just a year or two before, my parents and most of my teachers were treating me no differently. They continued telling me what to do, answering for me if my answers didn’t come quickly enough, and assuming that what they could see on the outside was all there was to the little girl in front of them. This was so different than my own understanding of myself that I found myself pulling away, rolling my eyes, slamming doors, sure that no adult could understand.
Except one. Ms. Cleary taught Social Studies. Early in the school year, she started a lesson on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by playing the U2 song “Pride” on her boom box and having us write the lyrics as we heard them sung. She knew how to reach students through topics and media in which they were already interested, long before we carried the media in our pockets. Because of her talent at engaging students, I still remember some of her lessons thirty years later. However, that is not the only reason why Ms. Cleary is the teacher I think of every year during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Ms. Cleary saw me cross out of childhood, and she noticed. She let me stand on my not-a-child-but-not-quite-an-adult gangly legs, she watched, and she accepted. I could see it in the patience and space she gave when, overcome with emotions over a social tragedy, I couldn’t get right down to work that day. I could see it in the way she gave me time to answer, and when it didn’t come out right, she offered another chance, sure that there was a thought that was worth hearing. She didn’t just notice that there were insightful thoughts forming inside, she assumed it, and went looking for them. She spoke to me like an adult, like a junior colleague, and like a person worth noticing. From those experiences, I learned to walk more steadily on those gangly legs, to manage my emotions so I could to get down to work, and to express my thoughts clearly on the first try. Ms. Cleary later became my basketball coach, and then my high school teacher. She continued to be a mentor throughout.
What I learned from Ms. Cleary is that children of all ages, even the ones that are rolling eyes and slamming doors, will connect to adults if they feel heard. It’s not a surprise that in my current job, I work to help parents, clinicians, and teachers understand that children have a voice that is worth hearing. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to Ms. Cleary and to all the teachers who take the time to listen.
Alisha Pollastri, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and researcher at Harvard Medical School. She is the co-author of The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach.