Quiet settled in the time between knowledge and recognition, with comprehension lagging behind. A voice from long ago stated, “Individual humans cannot evolve; we can, however, adapt.”
Staring at a backlit screen, a second-year graduate student searches his memories. What words does one use to describe the person who changed the trajectory of countless lives?
Nine years earlier, running from one class to another, texting along the way, his younger self missed an opportunity to relieve himself.
“Hey, can I go to the bathroom?” he asked brusquely as he entered the room. Mrs. Mendez, arms precariously cradling a laptop, textbook, gradebook, and stacked folders, was also rushing from another classroom.
“Sit down, please,” was the firm response.
The class massed out sodium bicarbonate for a photosynthesis lab. “Why doesn’t she just call it baking soda?” The student nudged his closest peer, pointing out the pale orange box on the lab bench. He took a spatula and started forming tidy, parallel lines on the balance - a drug reference that was funny to his lab partners for its irreverence.
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Mendez said as she took the circular base and dumped it in the awaiting garbage can. A variant of a four-letter expletive, heard by all present, hung dangerously in the air.
“Michael, come with me,” the teacher commanded sternly. The student got up more loudly than was necessary and followed her out of the room.
“That is not appropriate for a school environment. You have a detention after school,” Mrs. Mendez said in an exasperated voice. A conflicting mix of silent anger and deep remorse simmered within the student, only slightly clouded by the pressure from his bladder.
After school, the student showed up for his detention. The day mellowed his anger, giving way to the start of reason. There were a couple of teachers talking as he walked in, exchanging ideas and planning. He was directed to wash labware and clean the boards, which seemed like an ancient way to discipline. Overhearing the teachers’ conversation, the student was surprised at the amount of care they took in deciding ways to help various students (whose names they whispered) and at the thoughtful ways they discussed “lesson plans” and “learning outcomes.” He had never thought about what teachers did outside of class.
As the student finished wiping the remaining equations and notes from the board, Mrs. Mendez directed her attention to him as her colleague left. “Do you know why today’s incident disappointed me?” she asked, pausing briefly before answering her own question. “You have such great potential.” Potential, that oft-stated reason for teachers to compliment and admonish students, rung in the student’s ear. Although he had heard the word before, it rarely followed “disappointed.”
“It’s up to you as to what you will do with that potential. There may be lessons that bore you. There may be situations that upset you. There will be times when things are beyond your control. How will you adapt?”
The student was quiet. This was the first time someone had seen beyond his well-constructed facade, which masked the emptiness left by the death of a parent and the struggles that remained in a volatile and destabilized home. Mrs. Mendez held her hand out to shake the student’s. It was a formal gesture that felt at once awkward and appropriate. “Let’s start again tomorrow,” she responded.
Later that week, Mrs. Mendez pulled the student aside to discuss a hastily submitted lab report. The student dreaded what might come next. “I know that you can do better,” were the only words uttered as the paper was handed from teacher to student. There were questions written in red ink throughout the pages.
Not much of a discussion, thought the student. “Whatever,” he said under his breath, but guilt quickly flushed over him before the word was fully formed. He rewrote the lab report with greater detail and deeper analysis before resubmission. The student sought harder to discover connections and found them.
Although he observed others being pulled aside that day and knew that he was not the only one to disappoint, the student had difficulty refocusing on the next lab. The rest of the class was cutting Planaria with scalpels to observe regeneration. It seemed freakishly interesting to most of them, and one boy whispered, “I can’t believe she’s trusting us with sharp objects.” Only flatworms were cut that day, and something began stirring in the student.
The student saw Mrs. Mendez taking risks with new strategies to reach the disengaged among his class with varied degrees of success and failure. Many of the students seemed to appreciate the chances for inquiry and challenge that the teacher worked hard to present every day. Others, however, learned despite their complacency and occasional rudeness.
Midyear, she presented a challenge to her classes. Pick one problem that you see in the local environment and think of a way to solve it. The student, once detached, found himself developing a plan for neighborhood children to learn about plants and grow a garden. It was not a novel idea, but it involved an internal shift that found him changing plans after school and on weekends to dig in the dirt with younger kids on his own accord.
As the school year progressed, the student found himself caring about things he hadn’t before - the quality of his work, the relationships that he was forming, and the direction of his life.
Toward the end of their time together, Michael asked his teacher, “Why do you keep doing this year in and year out?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you keep teaching? It seems so hard.”
“And I seem so old?” Mrs. Mendez asked.
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”
“I don’t think I could do it. I was awful in the beginning, and I wasn’t the only one.”
“You were testing boundaries and learning to navigate your environment. You adapted.”
“So, you do this to see students evolve?”
“Individual humans cannot evolve; we can, however, adapt. I get to challenge students to adapt, to grow, and most importantly, to care.” Mrs. Mendez gave the student a hug good-bye.
Compelled by emotions that had lain dormant until recent events forced them to surface, the graduate student began his message of consolation to strangers who he hoped to meet. A cancer that he first learned about in a class long ago took the life of the teacher who taught him about it. Both he and his teacher dealt with struggles each kept from the other.
To the family of Mrs. Mendez,
Your grandmother changed my life …
Chi Klein serves as the Academic Dean of the Upper School and teaches AP Biology at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, FL. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University. Her interests include encouraging students to follow their intellectual passions and supporting teachers as dedicated professionals in their field.