Sitting on the couch during a beautiful summer day, my phone buzzed, signifying that a new message had been received. I glanced at the screen to see a red notification dot over Gmail, my work email. If you’re considering what I was doing inside on a gorgeous, sunny day, or why, when I had the summer off, I was checking my work email, worry not and merely render the inclusion of these details a product of literary effect. I checked the sender: a student who had recently graduated. As I opened the message, I saw several short paragraphs, and for the next minute, I proceeded to study the note. By the time I finished reading, I was overcome with emotion. To this day, I sometimes still get choked up thinking about this letter.
I taught this student, let’s call her L, AP English Literature and Composition in what was likely the best class, in every way, I’ve ever had. It was a tightknit class of ten students who were polite, thoughtful, inquisitive, studious, and imaginative. What’s more, I openly took risks with these students and they were eager to partake in the journey and explore the results with me. On one occasion, I actually almost teared up because of how impressively sophisticated and beautiful their student lead conversation was. Luckily for them, this was a marked tasked; let’s just say everyone was happy with the results! In another moment, I gave students the option to complete a test individually or collectively; however, if they chose the collective route, they would all have to come to a consensus and submit the same response for both the multiple-choice section and the essay question. They chose the collective route, and the conversation that ensued was breathtaking, and the essay was even more impressive.
I genuinely believe that this is the type of class that you’re lucky to get once in a teaching career. These students were switched on and engaged in the learning process. What’s more, they trusted me and I trusted them; so much so that we were able to take risks together. I became so confident in their abilities that I actually let them develop their own unit test. I know, right?
Further, at this time I had learned about student conferencing and decided to introduce daily conferences into my lessons. Because we were such a small class, I was able to meet individually with students once every couple of weeks. For a few minutes, as other students read, we would have our mini conversations. I would often give a small prompt and then let the student lead the conversation. Sometimes we would talk about course concepts, other times of university plans, or even about texts they had read in the past.
On one occasion, L spoke about her plan to attend nursing school, something I would not have known without the aid of these daily conversations. Along with her apparent aspiration to enter the medical profession, one thing to note about L is that she is easily the best writer that I’ve ever taught. I saw her growth and progression as a writer over the course of the year and was thankful to be able to play a small part in the process. Having just finished reading When Breath Becomes Air, and noting the dichotomous relationship that medicine and writing play for the protagonist, Paul, I had to suggest this text to L due to her own interests in these areas. As a side note, this was the best text I had read all year, so if you’re looking for a captivating and heartbreaking read, it should be When Breath Becomes Air.
Our conversation soon ended and nothing more was said about the text. It wasn’t until graduation where I asked her, “have you had a chance to read Kalanithi’s novel yet?” “Not yet,” she replied. I took this opportunity to suggest the work to her once more: “If there’s one gift that I can give you for graduation, it would be reading that book.” She thanked me and, like so many of our students, moved on despite me having so much more to teach.
Then, one day in the summer, I received an email. I debated whether or not to include L’s message verbatim. Ultimately, I decided to do so for two reasons. First, I try to promote student voice in my classroom, and I think there is value in hearing this student’s voice. Secondly, I couldn’t possibly convey the meaning in her writing or do it justice without having you read what I read. So here it goes. I read the subject line: When Breath Becomes Air.
Subject: When Breath Becomes Air
Hi Mr. Black!
I hope you are having a great summer!
Upon your suggestion, I decided to read When Breath Becomes Air. Of all the books I have ever read, few have resonated with me in the way that this one did.
As I was reading, I was moved by Kalanithi’s rich explorations of the interconnections of literature, language, identity, and death. I don’t normally annotate books I read for pleasure, but my copy of this book is filled with pages I couldn’t help but dog-ear for one reason or another. I was also struck by the similarities of Kalanithi to my own father. Both talented surgeons, scholars, kind human beings, and loving husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers. Both passed away at the same age, albeit from different circumstances. Both had a love for a life authentically lived.
Kalanithi’s articulation of the pain, joy, and knowledge that come with a life suddenly redefined by illness and uncertain timeframes was beautifully devastating to read, and I know I will hold on to this book for a long time to come.
Thank you for this book suggestion, and thank you for a truly amazing year of literature.
Wow. As you can imagine, I was floored by this message. Even to this day, I read that note and tear up. We often consider the impact that we, as educators, can have on students, yet we rarely consider the impact that students can have on us. The way that their triumphs can become our own, how their words can move us, and how their stories, often left fully untold, can be beautifully devastating to hear.
From an AP Lit teacher perspective, I would have to point out that diction, syntax, tone, and articulation of meaning within that email were both stunning and powerful. From a teacher’s point of view, I would argue that these moments, receiving an email, note, or even just a thank you, are the ones that fill us up, that keep us going, and that reassure us of our purpose; I know they are for me. Finally, from a student perspective, me being the student in this case, I was captivated by the message inherent within this email and by what it taught me about L as a learner and myself as a teacher.
On a beautiful summer’s day, I received the best gift that I’ve ever been given as a teacher: it was an email from a former student, confirming the power that literature has and the necessity for conversation within education.
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