Sometimes in life, there are stories you just have to write down. Moments that need to be chronicled because they deserve a place in your life canon, even if you’re the only person who will ever read it. This is one of those:

Let me be frank:  The last week of school is always dreadful. Everyone is spent and ready for summer, and last June was no exception. The curriculum had been covered, the DC trip was over, and we still had an entire week to fill.  In an effort to make the week a little more bearable (for me),  I assigned a final project:  My 8th-Grade Footprint. “For this project,” I explained, “there are no rubrics. No handouts. The requirement is simple – you will leave your footprint. I want you to think about what you’ve learned in middle school. I’m not talking about academics or formulas. We’ve already assessed that. Instead, I’m talking about what you’ve learned about life. I want you to find a way to leave your legacy on the hearts of your classmates.  I want YOU to share your life lessons.  The way you’ll do that is entirely up to you. Make a video, write a poem, sing us a song. I don’t care, and I won’t judge. This is all I am going to tell you. Be ready to share your footprints on June 2nd. Ready? Go.”

And by golly, they went to work! It was a freaking teaching miracle, I tell ya. These 14-year-old kids, confronted with a “project” the last week of school — an open-ended project, nonetheless– began buzzing with palpable excitement. I was merely the observer, watching as they worked to bring their stories to life (while simultaneously patting myself on the back for stealing this ingenious idea from the internet).

Most students worked in groups, making movies or PSAs about their middle school experience. But one young lady, Anna, worked alone. I wasn’t surprised; Anna usually preferred to work by herself. In a world of Abercrombie conformity, she was an outlier: She had an asymmetrical haircut, wore black, and spent her free time with a book or a pen instead of an iPhone. When all her classmates were reading The Hunger Games, Anna was devouring Rosemary’s Baby, dissecting characters and symbolism with the ease of a college professor. She didn’t just march to the beat of a different drum – she was in an entirely different band. For instance, at the Washington DC dinner-dance, when her classmates were huddled in sweaty, bouncing masses, Anna was in the corner, doing the “robot.” Alone. Eyes closed. For hours. She was deliciously different.

On first glance, one might perceive her as socially unaware. But that wasn’t the case. On the contrary. She knew that her puzzle piece didn’t quite fit.  I once asked Anna to describe herself to me, as an author would. She wrote: “I’m an anxious mess of a human being. I don’t care about trends, because I’m too busy being scared of everything. Even if I dressed, acted and understood the same as everyone else, I’d still be anxious about how others saw me. I don’t fit into the mix because I was never in the mix to begin with.”  

It’s not that her classmates ignored her; I think they genuinely respected her intelligence. But they didn’t flock to her. She was, in many ways,  an island.  A remote, mysterious island – Hard to reach, and easier to observe on their own comfortable shores from a distance.

I had Anna in class for two years. In 7th grade, at the beginning of the year, we had our first Socratic Discussion. I wanted every student to participate, in some way. ANY way. Anna, a girl who no-doubt understood the deeper meaning of the story better than anyone, was the only one in the class who didn’t speak, and instead, turned in a written analysis that knocked my socks off and made me feel like a literary idiot. “I just…I just couldn’t do it,” she said.  I don’t know if she was just nervous, or if she knew that her answers were so deep that they wouldn’t make sense to the other children. I’m guessing it was a mix of both.

So fast forward, two years later. Here she was, silently working on her footprint project.  I’d watch her write, erase, and turn the page. She didn’t reveal what she was doing, and I didn’t ask many questions.

On presentation day, after watching several iMovies and skits, it was finally Anna’s turn. She stood up and walked to the front of the room. She had a stack of paper in front of her, which she carefully laid on the table.  I watched her classmates eye one another curiously.  One boy sighed, like the guests at a wedding when the best man brings an entire spiral notebook to the microphone before delivering the toast.

She took a deep breath and started to deliver a speech that she’d nearly memorized.  With conviction and grace, she told a brilliantly-woven story beginning with an anecdote about being an awkward three-year-old in a grocery store, a keenly aware toddler who knew that she was not like everyone else. Through the use of short vignettes, she spoke about respect. About being different. About empathy. She described the way she views the world, and the way the world likely views her.  She stood there and did the impossible – something I, in twelve years of teaching, had never done:  She held the attention of 29 teenagers, captivating them with only words, for seventeen solid minutes.

At 10:03 AM, she finished and exhaled. We stared. She stared back.

In the back of the room, a tall, popular football player pushed back his chair, stood up and began to clap. His friend wiped away a tear, stood up, and joined him. Within a few seconds, a crying mix of teens stood, one by one, applauding a girl who, just seventeen minutes prior, was a stranger.  Her story wasn’t sad; that’s not why we were crying. No, we were crying because we’d been cracked wide open by her vulnerability, and there just weren’t words for our rawness.

The next day, the last day of school, I was sitting in my room with a handful of students who’d come inside from the 8th grade party to help me clean the room for the summer. Mike, a kind, popular heartthrob-of-a-boy said, “Mrs. Nianouris, can we talk about yesterday for a second?”  He didn’t have to say anything else. We all knew what he meant.

“Sure,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s just…that speech. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen. People heard about it at lunch,  ya know…just that something big had happened. Everyone kept asking me what it was about, but I didn’t know what to say. The thing is,  I can tell you almost every single word Anna said, but I just can’t find the words to explain what it was about. Because it was more than what she said. It was just…bigger. Too big for words.”

The other kids nodded, looking at me, seeking a way to define the experience. The emotional intimacy they were feeling was new, foreign, strange.

“Maybe you should just tell Anna what it meant to you?” I suggested.

“Yeah. I’ll do that. I promise.” And then, like something out of a movie, the final bell rang, signaling both an ending and a beginning for all of us.

As I prepared to leave my classroom for the very last time that afternoon, I picked up the one box I was taking home with me forever – a box full of letters, notes, and keepsakes from my twelve years as a teacher. A collection of memories. The things that mattered. Anna’s speech was at the top.

It was finally over, and I didn’t know how to feel. So I sat down at my desk and wept.

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