“I met Dmitri when he was in seventh grade when I was to be his teacher. Before the first day of school at the middle school where I taught, we had a fun hiking day where students got to interact with their teachers. Parents could come if they wanted, which they usually did. From there, we all got to be outside. Of course, it was optional, but students were strongly encouraged to come.
Dmitri came by himself. When we got to the top of the mountain, we did this exercise where everyone picked out two palm-sized rocks. They chose one they didn’t like very much and let it represent all their fears and anger. Then they threw that off the mountain, and we encouraged them to scream when they did this if they wanted to. It’s often fun to just scream as loud as you can.
Then with the other rock, you let it represent what you love about yourself or you let it represent someone you love. We often tell them they could save it for someone they love. When Dmitri threw his first rock over the mountain, he let out the most gut-wrenching scream ever. He doubled over with it and screamed until he couldn’t anymore.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘That is a child with demons.’
That school year, I was Dmitri’s English and history teacher. He was a great student. The kind of student nobody worries about. 4.0 GPA, or top marks in all areas. He was very popular although he didn’t have any real friendships. However, he didn’t have any enemies either. He had a great sense of humor and was just a very likable kid. He was also a good writer.
His essays were always pretty good, although they were very closed off. Like he was locking the reader out of the story. He never connected anything to himself. He seemed scared to show that level of emotion. The way he outlined and articulated essays were good beyond his years, but he never made the reader feel anything. This isn’t surprising, not that many seventh graders know how to make a reader laugh or cry.
About halfway into the semester, there was an assignment for the students to write about a time they struggled to say something. This could be having a hard time telling the truth, having trouble saying how they were feeling, or just any struggle with communication they have had.
On due date, I saw Dmitri’s essay in his folder as he was sorting through some papers from his bag. As I went to grab it, he quickly grabbed it.
He said, ‘Oh, um, that’s a rough draft,’
Then he handed me another version. I accepted it, but before I went, I asked if I could have the rough draft as well. I really like watching the way a student’s writing changes between drafts. I assured him I wouldn’t grade the rough version. He seemed like he very much wanted to say no, but he was a very passive kid. So he agreed.
That night, I graded the papers and first read his final version. Pretty much what I was expecting, a well-written, well-organized introspective essay regarding when you should tell the truth to preserve somebodies feelings and when honesty is more important. His ideas were deep, but he did a weak job connecting them back to his own life. Then I read the rough draft. It was on a completely different topic and blew my mind.
It wasn’t organized or planned. I don’t think Dmitri outlined it first and it seemed like he wrote it without the intention of it being read. It seemed more like something he did for himself therapeutically.
The essay was about his older brother who had died when Dmitri was nine. He talked about how difficult it became to talk to people after that.
One quote that really stayed with me, taken directly from the essay, was ‘At the funeral, everyone felt the need to talk to me. They gave me their condolences and told me it would be okay even when it clearly wouldn’t be. I wanted them to go away and shut up and just let me be alone with silence. After the funeral, after all the thoughts and prayers were out of the way, everyone faded into the background. They were so worried they’d say the wrong thing that they chose to say nothing at all. With a mother who had collapsed into herself, I was left alone. I ended up resenting the silence I had searched for at the funeral.’
It was, without a doubt, the best student writing I’d ever read. It made me cry, in parts it even made me laugh.
I talked to Dmitri about it. He broke down in the conversation and said he hadn’t actually talked to anyone about his brother in over a year. We talked for a while.
At the end of the semester, I found a little box with a note from Dmitri.
The note read: ‘I wasn’t sure what this was supposed to represent. There were no parts of myself I particularly liked and no one I felt comfortable declaring love for, even if the declaration was a private one. Thank you for showing me the parts of myself it could be and for showing me what a healthy relationship is. You’re the person I was meant to give this to.’
Inside the box was his rock from the start of the year hike. I’ve kept it for the past three years. It’s the most thoughtful student gift I could have asked for.
Dmitri is in 10th grade now and with his intellect combined with his determination to be the first in his family to graduate college, I’m quite certain he has a big future ahead of him.”