It's a happy moment for most teachers when their students feel comfortable to open up their lives to them. However, sometimes sharing what's really going on at home shows that life has a very dark, sinister side.
(Content has been edited for clarity.)
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"Reading one of my student's essay, I realized that a 16-year-old male student of mine got paid to do live cam feeds for older men.
It was an essay on poverty, and his examples were so graphic that I went to a guidance counselor and asked them what we should do.
There wasn't much that could be done. He admitted to 'talking' to people online but refused to say that anything else was done. His parents chose to believe him, of course.
This was two years ago. Last I heard, he drives a new BMW and wears more gold than a hustler. I wonder what his parents think now."
"I was an English teacher in Japan. The junior high school kids can volunteer to do a speech at the Regional English Speech contest, which usually means their Japanese teacher has to volunteer one kid to participate. Except for Taro. Taro volunteered. My job was to translate Taro's speech from broken English to proper English and help him rehearse. The first line of his speech was, 'Some days, I don't want to be alive. I think it would benefit everyone if I was dead, but I can't because my mom won't let me.' I had to put it down, leave the room and have a big cry.
The speech was about how he has autism, and how it is difficult for him to understand people and for people to understand him. Ultimately he ends up doing or saying the wrong thing, and he feels he hurts people around him. He attempted suicide but his mom found him and begged him to never try again. By the end of the speech, he was asking people to try and accept people like him, and if they saw someone acting strange to remember they might be like him and need more understanding.
When we were practicing alone, I told him I was proud of him and that I understand those feelings. Also, he can say things in a second language I couldn't even say in my first. We both cried a little. He asked me if I wanted a hug, and I asked him if he wanted to. He said no, but it is what people like to do when they are sad. We didn't hug. Dang, it Taro! You are my hero!"
"Between 16 and 21, I was a teaching assistant, then later, a guest speaker for a health class at my high school.
I grew up in an abusive home, had a history of addiction and drinking problems plus I had my first son when I was 16. So I would talk to the class about the importance of using protection/birth control, the difficulty of parenthood as a teen, how to deal with abusive and dangerous home situations, as well as running a lot of group activities on the dangers of addiction and drinking heavily.
The end of every quarter, the teacher would ask them to write a thank you note for me. One girl wrote me a four-page letter about how much it helped her and 'made her believe she could fix herself too, and that she didn't need to kill herself that summer.'
She talked about her abusive stepfather, being violated by her brother for years, her substance abuse/drinking, and how she had just gotten an abortion. She had hated herself and blamed herself for everything that was happening. I told her teachers that I HAD TO talk to her, and I grabbed her out of her next class after reading her letter and we spoke for the rest of the day. She went into great detail of everything that had been happening for the past nine years. We made a plan and got her out of her house, into counseling, and her family all got arrested and charged for the all the crap that they put her through.
We still talk to this day, and she is doing well. She's getting her degree to become a child psychologist specializing in abuse recovery. She's become one of the most well adjusted young women I have ever known."
"I'm a writing tutor, and I read a girl's essay of what it was like when a close friend of hers was killed in a gang-related shooting. They both went to the same high school I did. He was in my class, and I remembered when it happened.
Reading how he died with his head in her lap while waiting for the ambulance was so heartbreaking that I lost my objectivity and nearly started to cry. He was a good person and not involved in gangs or illegal activities. He was attempting to de-escalate a situation, but he lost his own life instead.
Of all the papers I helped with when I worked there, that is the one that stands out the most."
"I've assigned personal experience essays to eighth graders, and it was enlightening. The school I worked at was known for having wealthy kids, and many teachers complain the biggest problems our students have are superficial.
This may be true for many students, but not all. I have a set of twins, and the girl wrote about their parents' recent divorce. Their father was already living with his new girlfriend and her kids. The girl wrote about how miserable and uncomfortable she felt in her home, so she preferred to stay with their mom. However, she missed her twin brother on the weekends.
She appealed to my emotional side, and I was in tears by the end of it.
Another boy wrote about missing his mom. She moved to Texas and left him and his older brother with their grandparents. Now they see her posting pictures on Facebook of her 'new family.'
Perhaps the most shocking essay came from a girl who informed me that her older brother is in prison for the murder of his girlfriend."
"My third-grade students had to write a poem that goes like:
I am happy when \__.
I am excited when \__.
I am angry when \__.
I am sad when \__.
One student wrote 'I am angry when [multiple erased words],' but then the kicker: 'I am sad when my mom's boyfriend comes over.' I saw it when she turned it in - as they were being dismissed to the gym.
I asked her to stick around. I went line by line through the poem asking her to explain each point. She couldn't explain why she erased the 'angry' part, just saying she couldn't find the right words. She said, 'I don't know what word fits for angry all the time.'
When it came to 'I'm sad when my mom's boyfriend comes over,' she said that he makes her cry, and he grabs her too hard. I asked her why he grabs, and she said he grabs her when she's being bad. I asked her to point to where, and she pulled up her pink sleeve. She had bruises on her arms.
I asked if she wanted some juice, or a treat before gym to keep the conversation moving away from what evidence I uncovered. She had a Werther's hard candy, and we walked to the gym while she happily enjoyed it and we talked about her favorite gym game. After I dropped her off, I went to the gym teacher and told them that it would lift her spirits to play this game.
I went right to the principal's office and told them the situation and we made notes on the conversation. We had to follow protocol, so child protective services was called, they saw the girl half an hour later, and she was taken to their day center while the mom was contacted.
I heard the mother refused to leave the boyfriend, and the child was relinquished into protective services. She changed schools, the whole bit. The last time I saw her, she was guarding a bowling pin against being pelted by dodgeballs. She had a big smile, misshapen only by the candy she still had tucked in her cheek."
"I had one student who unexpectedly went into great detail about another student forcing himself on her that year. The essay assignment was on code-switching and contact zones, and she tied it back to the importance of not assuming social cues would translate across to people of different backgrounds, as she thought she could have done more to prevent it and predict his intentions. It was a great essay, but it was jarring to read after a dozen essays from other students on talking differently to parents than friends and becoming proficient with video game lingo.
It had already gone through campus security and everything, so I didn't have to take any action myself, it was just unexpectedly heavy stuff. I think she needed to get it out, is all.
Then the next year, a different student for a different assignment wrote about almost the exact same thing, and now I think freshman dorms are dangerous places."
"In the 10th grade, we were assigned to write a paper about a major moment in our life. At one point, we had to present our rough drafts to the entire class. A friend of mine started her essay with something along the lines of:
'I remember standing there. Knowing HE was in that room. That HE would change my life. That HE would-'
And my teacher cut her off. The teacher called her out in front of the class, and told her off for 'writing about something as unimportant as a boy.'
My friend was shaken up, then flatly announced her paper was about the day she met her biological father and what it was like to be told to never contact him or his new family again.
The teacher was mortified. I believe she pulled her out later to apologize, but there wasn't much coming back from that."
"I had a student who wrote a story (for a county-wide writing contest) about a kid who lived with his grandma because his mom was in prison, and he had no clue who his dad was. The grandma couldn't work, but couldn't get disability, so the main character lived in a home with no electricity or running water. The character was resourceful; he took showers at school and saved some of the items from breakfast and lunch to take home so he could eat. The story ended with the grandma getting dementia and social services stepping in.
He got an honorable mention in the contest. He wasn't there to get his ribbon, because the story he wrote was an autobiography, and social services put him in foster care two counties over, so he had to change schools."
"I read and advise current high schoolers on their college admissions essays and portfolios. One, in particular, stands out in my mind.
This kid, a boy, was quiet and reserved. He seemed smart and had good grades. He struggled a lot, though, with coming up with a topic for his application essay. He always seemed to fall into the tropes of an average essay: talking about a normal event but trying to make it sound 'meaningful' and 'defining.' After his first few drafts, I reiterated that his essay should be about something meaningful to HIM, not to an admissions officer. He agreed to write another essay, this time writing from the heart, 'with no filter,' as he said.
I was excited. I have read few superb college essays, and I can tell when a student is inspired. A week later, we met again, and he handed me his draft, looking a little uneasy. I expected something personal, like something about his family. Instead, as I read it, I realized that I was reading a literal manifesto.
It started out strong. He talked about how he felt like an outsider because he had strong opinions, but believed that nobody would agree with him. But after the introduction, he outlined his entire political philosophy, in detail. First, economics: all currency should be abolished, production should be controlled by the state, and citizens should be given only what they need. Okay, Marxism is a little unusual. Then, he went into society: all people should wear the same exact thing, uniforms, every day; all languages besides English should be outlawed; people should be sterilized at birth and permitted to breed only at the behest of the government. I was messed up at this point, and this wasn't even half of the essay.
It went on for maybe 2,000 more words and described a global government ruled by 12 people chosen for their IQ, wherein all people are assigned careers based on aptitude tests, and 'dissenters' are 'removed' from society and forced to live in labor camps. Basically, this kid spent several pages outlining a civilization somewhere between 'The Giver' and '1984.'
I didn't have any idea what to say, or where to even begin, so I just told him it was interesting, but didn't talk about himself enough, and suggested we take a look at his previous draft.
He got into an exceptional school, and is now studying political science."
"I teach English as a second language in an Asian country. One of my students wrote her final senior speech about her older sister who died as an infant.
In a pile of fluff essays, I did not expect to come upon such a deep topic. She wrote that they still celebrated her sister's birthday and her mom bought a cake every year. She also described how sad her mom was after her sister's death and how hard it was for her to continue to have children.
I went up to the girl in the next class and told her if she wanted to talk more she could come to me any time. She seemed surprised I said anything, but when she gave her speech to the class everyone was respectful, and she ended up placing in the top 10."
"I was an English tutor when one of my male students wrote about being violated by a babysitter for over a year. It was a personal narrative grafted with an essay about assault and misconduct, and not being taken seriously among males in the United States. Honestly, it was one of the better essays that I've ever read, and it's even influenced me to take a more proactive stance on men's rights issues.
Unfortunately, the student committed suicide a year after writing the essay. T"
"One of my students keeps a personal journal of his English learning that he's very proud of. He writes about his day and things going on in his life; usually, simple things like 'Today I went to the park,' because he's just learning English. One day he showed me his journal, and one page had a detailed description of how the science teacher hit him hard in front of everyone because he couldn't do one of the experiments properly. That page was longer than any other page in that journal, and more complex too, 'I feel bad every day in that class because my teacher is a horrible man. He shouldn't be a teacher.'
He's in 6th grade.
Unfortunately, this is in South Korea and they don't allow corporal punishment, and a lot is often swept under the rug."
"In my first two years of college, I did SAT tutoring and helped kids with their college applications and essays.
A lot of them were on the subject of overcoming adversity or dealing with a tough time, things of that nature. One girl wrote an essay about having been violated by some guy she thought she was close with. It was full of descriptive details and personal narrative. She gave it to me to proofread, I obviously asked if she was doing okay or needed help getting counseling or anything, and she said she'd made it up for the essay to give her a leg up on admission applications.
It was disturbing with the number of details she put into it; it was overly descriptive and very upsetting at the same time, but now magnified ten times by the fact she made it up."
"We have to do a creative non-fiction essay as part of our curriculum. I try to make it clear that not only will I be grading them, we also have to do peer review so they will be shared. I make it clear that it does not have to be something serious or personal.
But students will reveal everything in these essays anyway; details of substance abuse, assaults, physical abuse, abusive relationships, how much they hate their parents, and one even talked about how she messed around with her sister's boyfriend and now the family is split because of it. I feel like I probably wouldn't choose something personal like that if I knew other students and the professor would be reading it."
"As the first assignment for a composition class, I would have students write a personal essay where they had to discuss something that happened to them earlier in their lives, and how their perspective on that event has changed over time. It was natural that a lot of students would pick tragic events, but usually, it was when their grandma died or something like that. They could sometimes be a bit hard to read but were generally not too bad. But then I had a student tell a story about her younger sister getting sucked into the propellers of a speedboat and chopped to pieces. The next semester I cut that assignment from my curriculum and have never used it again."