*Names have been changed.
I can’t come up with a new name for her. No other name seems to fit, to do justice to her unique balance of tough tomboyish vulnerability. I tried the nickname she claimed for herself, but that seemed too goofy for her depth. I tried a name that rhymes with her real name, or begins with the same letter, and none of them seem right. But I have to call her something, so I’ve decided on Alana.
Alana was one of the few students I’ve had that reminded me of myself, but only once you got passed the surface. On the surface, Alana was a skateboard loving, baseball-hat wearing, dress-hating tomboy. She had an infectious laugh, but she could ooze “bad attitude” when she wanted to. She kept her hair braided back like the boys in the class, and dress-down days saw her in baggy jeans and t-shirts, which contrasted strongly to the fashion statements that were her female classmates, including her older sister.
That was the surface, an image she presented to the world to protect the vulnerable 14-year-old girl underneath.
Alana thought in the abstract. As I read through the assigned journals that she turned in, it soon became clear that her thought processes were different from any other student I’ve ever taught. Her writing often resembled random stream-of-consciousness, jumping topics mid-sentence, and just was as likely to mention crazy chickens, killer monkeys, or some kind of anthropomorphic food as they were to talk about literature. But incredibly, those crazy ramblings were often amazingly profound. In her own subconscious 14-year-old way, she reminded me of a young Joyce or Faulkner, even though she’d never even heard of those authors, much less read them. As I read her writings, I learned her views of human nature, love, and betrayal. She didn’t trust people easily. She had been hurt. She wrote about goofy things to put up a wall, but her unique examples and word combinations revealed more than she probably realized.
And she understood literature. She often didn’t keep up with the readings or do her homework on time, but when she did, she could be the most perceptive student in a class of students several grades older than her. She could analyze characterizations with the best of them and made connections about themes and contemporary issues that surprised even me. She was good.
Because her brain worked in the abstract world of words instead of the concretes of math and science, I don’t think she understood her own academic ability. She didn’t enjoy school; that much was obvious. She didn’t respond well to power struggles and pressure to behave a certain way, so she found herself in detention more than once. But I found that if I just let her be herself in her little behavioral quirks, she never gave me any trouble. I’d hear complaints from other teachers about bad behavior from her, but I never saw it.
I don’t think many other teachers saw just how much weight that 14-year-old girl was carrying on her shoulders (How could they? They didn’t have access to those incredibly profound journals she let me read.) There’s something about those students that carry more responsibility than their age should require. I can’t help but be drawn to them.
Alana had an older sister – a very bubbly, girly sister at that. Their parents saw Alana as the responsible one, and so they put her in charge when they left the house, not the older sister (we’ll call her Marie). Marie was several grades older than Alana, but with the school’s mixed-grade level structure, they were almost always in the same class. They never sat together and rarely hung out with the same people, but when Marie had a medical emergency, I saw a tough, protective instinct take over in Alana. She was a rock, keeping herself calm and trying to help her sister laugh in order to keep her from panicking while we waited for the ambulance to arrive.
I think that toughness took over more than Alana would admit. Her family faced many struggles that year, including several deaths. I saw Marie grieve the loss of her godfather. I saw their mother (a constant presence in the school) struggle with her own sister’s fight with cancer – a fight she eventually lost. I saw tears and grief from so many members of that family, but Alana dealt with all of it in silence. It as if no one had yet given her permission to be weak, and so she supported her family with a strength that a 14-year-old shouldn’t have to possess.
I remember having lunch with her once, and for the most part the topic of conversation was light. However, I stopped at one point and just said “Look. I know you don’t like talking about your emotions and getting all sappy, so I’m not going to ask you to do that if you don’t want to. But I at least need to say this: It’s OK to not be OK.”
She paused for a moment, and then she looked me straight in the eyes and said “Thank you. You have no idea…. just… thank you for saying that.” And that was the end of that conversation, but I think that’s what she needed. She was a 14-year-old tomboy – if you demand she talk, demand that she “be OK,” she would just hide the pain and anger to make you stop bugging her. She didn’t want to talk, but she needed permission to be weak and upset and confused.
And even though she didn’t like “mushy” stuff, she found little ways of showing appreciation. One day she asked what my favorite fruit was, and the next day I found a mango sitting on my desk with a sticky note that read “I got you a MANGO! – Alana”. She and another classmate got me a little cake on my birthday, as well as a stuffed, fuzzy, green monster. And more than the gifts, her actions demonstrated a deep care and concern for the people around her, especially her family. She might complain about them, she might hang out with different friends than her sister, but she would take care of them, come hell or high water. And she was only 14 years old.
Before I left, I encouraged her over and over again in her English-related skills. Her skills of literary perception and her ability to put words together in unique and profound ways outstrip any other student I’ve taught as far as raw talent goes. Unfortunately, before I met her, I don’t think anyone really recognized that skill, and so she had a habit of not liking anything school-related. I think I got through to her a little bit, but I only knew her for a year. Was it enough? Will her next teachers see what I saw and continue to encourage her? I really, really hope so, because she’s too remarkable to let that talent go to waste.