I am a dreamer. I always have been. My dreams have been filled with good things and bad things. Sometimes in my dreams, I am running towards an object or a person, and sometimes I am simply running away.
My dreams recently took me back to one of the most memorable times in my career as a writing professor. I thought about him, how I changed his life by teaching him how to open up and express himself through his writing. He was the student who touched my heart and instilled an everlasting impression. At first, he was full of nothing but anger and rage. He came to my class late every time. His negative attitude was obvious. He hated the world and everyone in it.
I asked him one time after class why he was so hard? When you ask, they answer. Cancer did it to him. His mom went into remission and then the cancer came back. He couldn’t open up about his emotions. He didn’t know how to. He was the one who took care of his mom. His dad walked out on him and his siblings when he was just 2 years old. As his mom was living her last few months in an at-home hospice, he went to class in between sitting by her side.
One day I brought in a blank journal book for him.
“I am giving this to you. This is yours and yours only. If you want to share it with me, I will read it. I have one rule: you are going to write in it every day. Every emotion you feel, whether it’s anger or happiness, I want you to write it down. It doesn’t matter. Put on headphones, blast your music and just write.”
We had 10 journal entries that semester. Every journal was applicable to his mother, and that was okay because he was writing, because he had finally opened his heart up and he was living. The big essay of the semester was the autobiography. It became the most cathartic one for him. He wrote about how the only love he ever had was from his mom. She was a single parent and a teacher for over 25 years. He was in school because of her. She prevented him from living a life on the streets selling drugs. Everything he had was because she was there for him.
On the day of our final exam, he walked in and looked at me. I knew. His mom had passed that morning. I asked if he wanted to postpone the final.
“My momma would want me to take your final. I told her about you and how your positivity made me come to class. Will you please come to her funeral and read my autobiography?”
It was the first time I would step in a church. In fact, when I walked in, the pastor asked if I was at the right church. There was gospel music playing. It was his mom’s “homecoming.” It was magnificent. There was singing, laughter and a lot of family togetherness. It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined.
I took the podium and introduced myself as his writing professor. I told the 200+ people sitting in front of me that he was my most special student and that his writing didn’t just touch my heart. Instead, it allowed him to open his for the first time. He had rekindled his estranged relationship with his father. He was able to process the emotions he had about his mom. In between the tears that streamed down my face, I stood and read his essay to the entire congregation. When I was done, he came up to me, with his 6’4 lean stature. He hugged me, weeping like a 2-year old boy who was lost in a store and couldn’t find his mom.
Many months later, he called me up just to ask if he could visit me at the college campus. He came to my Saturday morning class. While the students were doing a timed essay, he turned on his laptop and showed me his journals. There were over 100. Before my class, he never wrote, and afterwards, it was all he could do.
Sometimes we don’t know what someone is going through — their anger on the outside can represent true heartbreak on the inside. Many professors and teachers would have just failed a student like this, but I took the time to get to know him at a deeper level, and he left an everlasting impression on me.
I still think about my student to this day.