“I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down.” –Nehemiah 6:3
After teaching in a different school district for 11 years, I decided to make a brave decision in 2015. I stepped outside of my comfort zone, walked away from amazing colleagues, and students and families whom I loved and accepted a new position teaching 7th grade Language Arts at Highlands Middle School. As I moved into my new classroom, one of the first things I did was tape a tiny slip of paper to the drawer of my own desk with my favorite bible verse written on it (Nehemiah 6:3). Ever since stumbling upon it several years earlier, it has been my driving force, especially as a teacher. Nehemiah had a mission from God, a mission that required him to face obstacles and possibly question whether or not he was doing the right thing. As a teacher of hormonal teens, I could definitely relate to Nehemiah. All kidding aside, that little paper remained there throughout the school year, and actually still does today, as a constant reminder for me that teaching and pouring love into my students is my mission from God.
To say I was nervous on my first school day at HMS is an understatement. Would these students accept me? Would I live up to their expectations? In all honesty, the first couple of classes were a blur on that first day. Once 3rd period rolled around, I was getting into a decent groove and felt a tad more confident. When the bell rang and class had ended, a girl came up to me with a beautiful smile and said, “Thank you. Have a great day!” It was Michelle. She knew exactly what I needed. I remember thinking that she had to be the most kind and considerate 7th grader I had ever met.
As the year continued on, it quickly became apparent that Michelle was special. As a Language Arts teacher, I’m so fortunate to get to know my students on a deeper level through their writing. Michelle’s narratives took me adventures of beautiful descriptions and thoughtful storylines. Her essays were thought-provoking and passionate. Michelle made everything she did, including writing, look easy; however, I saw firsthand the amount of time and energy she put into revising each piece to make it her very best work. Much like her writing, Michelle operated in that same way with her peers and teachers. She poured herself into those relationships. And much like with her relationships, Michelle operated the same way on stage, whether it be in singing, dancing, acting, or all three. She put her heart into everything she did.
I also witnessed this outside of school when I ran into Michelle and a few of her friends that May at Great Wolf Lodge. Actually, it wasn’t a casual “run into” scenario. I was with my husband and daughter in the water park and heard the screeching of “MRS. FRY!!!” echoing throughout the place. My daughter, who was 7 at the time, found Michelle and her friends “so cool.” In that same situation, most middle school kids would say hello and then go about their business. Not Michelle. She spent probably two hours playing with my daughter. Once again, she put her heart and soul into that interaction, and it meant the world to me…and my daughter.
As the school year concluded, and the last few days were upon us, word had started to spread among the 7th grade floor that I would be teaching 8th grade the following year. I remember distinctly standing in my classroom on the very last day of school that year with Michelle and a few of her close friends, also my students. Michelle was in tears saying, “What if I don’t have you next year?” I kept a brave face, but I was fearing the same thing. And sure enough, as rosters were posted prior to the start of the next school year, Michelle was missing from mine. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. While I didn’t have the pleasure of teaching Michelle during her 8th grade year, I was fortunate enough to see her smiling face nearly every day. She always made an effort to stop by and see me, even though she was no longer in my class. I will always cherish those moments.
Over the past eleven months, I have spent nearly every day thinking of Michelle and reflecting on her life. So much is said about the impact teachers have on their students, but the reality is that students greatly impact their teachers’ lives as well. There are so many reminders of Michelle in my path each day, whether it be the #livefree bracelet on my wrist, the “high five” sign in my classroom, the gorgeous banner honoring Michelle in the gym lobby just steps away from my classroom, or simply watching students go out of their way to be kind to others. Michelle is there. A few days ago, I was moving around some furniture in my classroom, trying to get everything ready for a brand new school year. I glanced down at that little slip of paper with Nehemiah 6:3 on it, and the most incredible realization hit me. Michelle spent her life doing great works! That was her mission from God. Think about every single story that everyone shares about that sweet girl. She spent her life pouring love into everything she did, big or small. I am forever grateful that I was not only blessed with the opportunity to teach Michelle Chalk, but I was gifted the even greater opportunity to learn from her as well.