Remembering Emily

It’s hard to describe the reality of seventh grade: Ear-blasting laughter one minute, hysterical sobbing our silent pouting the next; the need for a hug and comfort one minute and the stiff don’t-come-near-me hauteur the next. I learned to react to Shari’s dressing and behaving in Little House on the Prairie mode on Monday and then showing up on Tuesday looking like a hooker.

To teach seventh graders is to enter a state of disquiet and incertitude. That’s why, when a test I took as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to train teachers in art theory indicated that I have a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity, I wasn’t surprised. Actually, I can’t think of a better description of teaching seventh grade: perpetual ambiguity.

But neither this august university seal of ambiguity sufferance nor ten years working with difficult students prepared me for Tiffany, who whined and wheedled through each day. Starved for attention and rejected by her peers, Tiffany clung to every adult in the building. When her favorite teacher of the moment became exasperated and exhausted, Tiffany would wince and move on to another teacher, or the nurse, or the principal, or a hall monitor, or a food serve in the cafeteria. Regardless of my reaction, Tiffany popped up twice a minute with inane questions: “Does a period go here?” “Does this look all right?” “Is the nurse here today?” “Do you know what we’re having for lunch?” Over and over, I reminded myself that this poor, scruffy, desperate waif of a child was just twelve years old.

I remain forever grateful to Tiffany for showing me the folly of the “assertive discipline” type behavioristic scam that enticed me for a couple of weeks one desperate February of discontent. I’d been teaching ten years, certainly long enough to know better. I became fixated on the fact that some students weren’t participating in a treasured classroom practices–a daily note exchange in little 3 x 5 notebooks between them and me. Worried that some kids were slipping through the cracks, and tempted by a journal article about the importance of student accountability, I made a giant chart listing everybody’s name alongside a grid of squares. According to my dictum, every time someone handed in his little spiral notebook with the day’s note inside, he’d color in a square next to his name.

It didn’t take me two weeks to see that kids seemed to be spending more time counting how many colored squares they’d amassed than chuckling over my notes to them or writing their responses. They began to accuse each other of cheating–coloring in squares without writing notes. Tiffany, always a faithful note writer, had more squares colored than anyone else, more squares than we’d been in school. So I set a new rule: I was the only one permitted to color the squares–with my bright purple magic marker.

It didn’t take Tiffany two days to figure this one out. She brought in her own bright purple marker and colored in squares when she felt the need. And she used the marker as her ace in the hole. Classmates who were nice to her could use her bright purple marker. I’d always felt a bit proud that I was the one teacher in our entire district who refused to take the in-service training in assertive discipline, did not join colleagues standing in front of mirrors practicing, “I like the way Jane is sitting quietly.” But suddenly I realized that the purple marker was just about as demeaning to me and my students as those pat positive assertive discipline phrases. I had taken one of the joys of our day, sharing personal notes, and turned it into a numbers game.

No students protested when I dumped the chart in the trash can.

The products of five years of remedial reading, Tiffany and her classmates see the sole object of any assignment as simply turning it in. Get something on paper so that the page isn’t blank, and then get rid of it fast. Years of working through workbooks and mountains of skill sheets conditioned kids into producing paper piles. Quantity counted for everything; nobody expected quality from those remedial kids. I once watched Tiffany and her classmates in the library, copying out passages from encyclopedias. I asked Tiffany what she was writing. “Four pages,” she said.

“No,” I persisted. “I don’t mean how long. I mean what topic?”

“”Our teacher doesn’t care. It just has to be four pages.” I didn’t think Tiffany was cynical enough to make that up, but I didn’t see how it could be true. So I asked her teacher. He patiently explained to me, “It teaches them self-discipline. These students can’t possibly understand the sophisticated and abstract concepts demanded in our social studies text or the standards. That’s hopeless. But they can learn to follow directions and to hand assignments in on time. They learn that when I say four pages, I mean four pages.””Our teacher doesn’t care. It just has to be four pages.” I didn’t think Tiffany was cynical enough to make that up, but I didn’t see how it could be true. So I asked her teacher. He patiently explained to me, “It teaches them self-discipline. These students can’t possibly understand the sophisticated and abstract concepts demanded in our social studies text or the standards. That’s hopeless. But they can learn to follow directions and to hand assignments in on time. They learn that when I say four pages, I mean four pages.”

Laurie, another of my students, was copying the encyclopedia entry on Patrick Henry and only managed to fill 3 pages of her college-rule paper. Not one bit fazed, after writing the last word in the Patrick Henry entry, she went right on with half a page about William Henry, British physician and chemist. When she reached the bottom line of page 4, she stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. Success!


Emily never missed a day in our note exchange, and the exchange seemed unexceptional until the day I wrote Emily,, “What is your favorite flower?” introducing a theme that continued for months. Emily repied, “Red rose, yellow rose, blue rose, and pink rose or zinnia.” Delighted to have struck a chord, I answered, Dear Emily,

Here’s a poem for you by a woman named Elizabeth Coatsworth. I like it a lot and hope you do too.

Violets, daffodils

Roses and thorn…

From this point on, Emily’s daily notes consisted of lists of flowers. One day her note was:

Carnations, sweet william baby’s breath.

That’s it: the whole note. The next day it was

Daisies and marigolds.


I wrote Emily questions about some of the flowers in her lists, but she didn’t answer. She just kept writing lists:

Bloodroot, pansy, tansy, tulip, dandelion, milkweed, iris, baptisia.


Dogtooth violet, lady’s slipper, jack-in-the-pulpit,

Wild rose, gold rose, honeysuckle, cactus, black-eyed Susan. sweetpea, four-o’clock, Queen Anne’s lace, butterfly bush, morning glory, lily of the valley, harebell, thistle, bardock.


I couldn’t imagine where Emily was getting all these names. Then I saw her taking a big, fat Encyclopedia of Gardening out of her book bag. Emily lived with her grandparents, who ran a nursery, and she was carrying this heavy book every day just so she could write flower names in her note.

Sometimes her lists were short; sometimes they were long, but no matter what I wrote in my notes, Emily just kept bringing me more flower names. One day I didn’t answer her note, figuring what did it matter. She was ignoring my message, my funny stories. But Emily was indignant. She dropped her pad on my desk, complaining, “You forgot to answer my letter.” I apologized.

Why didn’t I just ask Emily what was going on? I don’t know. I just had a feeling that something cosmic was occurring. Students and I rarely talked about the content of our note exchange, and I was afraid if I asked, “Why all the flower names?” I’d jinx something.

Finally, a couple of months after Emily wrote her first flower list, she sent me a hint that she was indeed paying careful attention to my notes. I wrote:

Dear Emily,

Peony! I love peonies. I’d forgotten about peonies until you mentioned them in your note.

Thank you. How about buttercups, sweetpeas, milkweed. Would you like to eat them

for dinner?

Emily replied.

Houseleek, stapelia, arrowhead, wild columbine, halachoe, tritoma, clover, mayapple,

strawberry geranium. No I do not eat plants.

The notes continued. Emily’s lists, in fact, got longer. Every day I wrote her funny stories about my cats, cooking soup, shoveling snow. Emily continued with flowers. Then I wrote about how much I was looking forward to spring, and Emily surprised me again.

It is supposed to get to 65 today.

Your friend, Emily

The signature was in tiny letters, the first time she’d ever used my salutation “Your friend.”

I wrote her a spring poem in reply and asked a question, “If you had a choice of any place in the world, where would you like to visit?” Over the months, I’d asked Emily 50 or more questions in my notes, and finally, here comes an answer.

Dear Mrs. O,

Portland, Oregon.

Brown and furry caterpillar in a hurry,

Take your walk in this shady leaf or stalk…..

To live again a butterfly.

Christina Georgina Rossetti and Emily

What a gift. When I wrote back I included a short poem about butterflies and asked another question: “What do you like about butterflies?”

Dear Mrs. O,

They look pretty and all the different butterflies and special colors and it would be nice to


In spring the chirping frogs

Sing like birds…in summer

They bark like old dogs. Onitsura and Emily

That was the last question Emily answered for another two months. Every day she gave me a poem in her note and I gave her one back in mine. One day she stormed up to my desk, “You just took my poem. I was going to give you that one today.” We agreed that it is pretty nice when two people like the same poems so much that they want to give them to each other. Emily showed me that she had been working on a scrapbook of poems to lug along with the gardening tome.

Sometime during the flower list notes, Emily began bringing me a flower every day. Some days they were silk, other days they were real. In class, she began to open up a bit, revealing her extensive knowledge of flower cultivation, passed on from her grandparents. One of our class projects was for students to prepare a talk for their classmates about something they knew how to do. To my surprise, Emily, who rarely communicated with other students, was enthusiastic about this project. She brought in a lot of material and demonstrated how gardeners graft plant to produce new species. Emily was knowledgeable and articulate, and her classmates were amazed–and interested. Emily ended up making her presentation in all my classes and in her science class.

When Emily was in high school, she dropped by occasionally, “just to say hi.” I always asked her how she liked her classes. She always smiled her vague little smile, and replied “Fine.”

When Emily was a senior she brought me a poinsettia at Christmas. “I hope you still like flowers,” She smiled. Then she asked the question every student who came back to visit asked “So you still write those notes to kids?”

After Emily graduated from high school, she started sending me a card at Christmas and another one in April, with a short Happy Spring note. Each year I could see diminished verbal facility. The spring cards dropped off. Then one Christmas there was no note. Emily sent a huge, elaborate card with a poem copied out on a separate piece of paper stuck inside. This pattern continued for another few years–through my four changes of address. No personal message but always a poem. I continued to write notes and ask questions.

Then the poems stopped and cards were accompanied only by her name in tiny letters.

NOTE: This is adapted from Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum, foreword by Deborah Meier (Heinemann 2001)

Postscript : Ten years ago, Emily’s family sent me an invitation to a surprise 50th birthday party for Emily. They told me they knew where I lived because Emily treasures all the notes. As much as I detest driving, I got in the car and drove 350 miles to that fete.

Emily had nothing to say. She just sat there grinning.