During my lunch hour, Senna, a senior in my Literature and Composition class, came up to my desk on the verge of tears.
“Ms. Fitz, can we talk about my portfolio?”
I noticed that something wrong right away and asked her to walk and talk as we headed away from the busy teacher cluster to my classroom for some quiet space.
“I was wondering why I got an Incomplete on my narrative,” she said, the tears starting to fall, “That was so hard for me to write. It took me a week to finish it.”
My stomach sank with the knowledge that I had failed Senna somehow and I panicked as I realized I had no clue what I might have done. Taking a seat, I watched Senna’s neck and face flush and passed her a tissue as she began to weep.
“Senna, whatever happened here, it’s clear that I made some kind of mistake. I’m so glad you came to me. Let’s work through this together, okay?”
Senna nodded as I opened my laptop and began toggling through the pages to her portfolio. In it, I saw her required drafts and the final for her essay and poem. I also saw the single draft of her narrative, which had not been completed in time for me to read and give feedback on before the portfolio was due. I glanced over the solid one page block of text and reread my comment: “This looks like a very early draft. Let me know when you’re ready for me to read the final.” Then, I began to read Senna’s narrative, looking for words and phrases that would give me a more complete picture of what had gone wrong. I read words and phrases like: ‘party’, ‘friend left me’, ‘led into a room’, ‘last thing I remember’, ‘he threatened to hurt me again if…’.
Senna had written the story of being sexually assaulted as a freshman, and I, probably in some text inundated haze that comes with sitting down to grade student writing, had failed her horribly. Not only had I not read the piece because I assumed a lack of effort on her part, but I had shamed her further by making her feel like she had done something wrong. I was speechless. What could I possibly say or do to make this right? Could I make this right?
I turned to Senna, my throat tightening and tears in my eyes now. “Senna…” I started slowly, “I am so, so sorry. I have to admit to you that I never read this piece. It looked like a first draft, and I dismissed it. I had been grading for a long time and you were at the end of the list. But it’s no excuse for me missing this. That must have felt so horrible for you, Senna. I’m so sorry.” I paused. “Is this the first time you’ve told this story?”
She nodded. “It happened when I was a freshman and when you asked us to write a Justice Narrative, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, but I wanted to try. I was just so confused about my grade…”
“Senna, I can’t imagine how awful that must have felt.”
She just kept saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” But it wasn’t okay. From the time she wrote that piece until the time she and I talked and long before and likely long after, so much was not okay.
I apologized over and over again to Senna. There was no limit to the number of times I wanted to and still want to apologize. She had been carrying the weight of being raped all by herself for years. I had opened up a way for her to come forward and begin to heal, and then I had denied her that space.
The only thing I knew how to do then, was listen. I held Senna’s hand as she told me her story, as she explained why she hadn’t said anything to anyone, as she expressed how she had not been sleeping in the aftermath of writing it all down, and how she didn’t know what to do next. I told to Senna how humbled I was by her bravery, not only to share her story, but to come to me after the confusion and pain I had caused her. We then made a plan to go talk to a counselor together.
Even after years of teaching and reading thousands of stories, poems, and essays, I love reading my student’s writing. Despite this, constraints on time and stacks of writing portfolios containing over a hundred of pieces always has the potential to thwart my best intentions. It’s tempting to reach the end of a stack of papers and speed up to just be done assessing already. But what happened with Senna is a reminder that a student’s story is always worth more than a score. I am not above making mistakes, and through words and actions I can amend my human error.
In a nation shifting through the #metoo movement and other social movements that communicate to students that their stories are valid and deserve to be heard, students are more likely to write about trauma, harm and injustice. I have a choice to guard myself from the complexities that writing these stories can unravel and assign writing that is devoid of lived experience, or I can continue to create opportunities for them to write what’s real. But if I do that, then every word they write must be treated as sacred. Every piece. Every word. Every student. Every time.