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Confessions of a "Problem Student"

I was late for school without a note—again. My unexcused absences had piled up like stamps on a Subway rewards card. But instead of a free tuna sub, I was cashing them in for another in-school suspension.

I stood in Dr. Butterini’s office, enduring another lecture on truancy. But I was just happy to be in a temperature-regulated building. At that moment, my home was the stairwell of an apartment building. It was February. In Pittsburgh. Everything I owned was shoved in my school locker.

When he finally got around to asking why I had skipped school the previous day, I said; “I have problems right now, I—”

“You don’t have problems. Kids with cancer have problems,” he said.

Yeah, he wasn’t the best principal. Over twenty years later, I still think about that interaction. It ended with him saying I was on the trajectory to work at Burger King. My snotty reply was something like, “No offense, but I think I’ll aim for T.G.I. Friday’s.” Yeah, I wasn’t the best student.

If you could hear the internal monologue of a teacher who saw my name on her class list, most of the words would be “bleeped” out for network television. I was the kid that they dreaded: wild with rebellion, bored, dramatic. I devoured their energy and spit out their good intentions. I made them wonder why they didn’t major in business like their parents had suggested.

I came dangerously close to being cast aside as a lost cause. Don't get me wrong, I was a Grade-A A-hole, but I was lucky enough to have a few teachers who nudged me (reluctantly) toward graduation. These guardians of my development drew attention to my strengths. They helped me see myself as someone who had a future beyond a deep fryer.

In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank all the teachers who relentlessly invest their time and effort in students who are labeled as hopeless or difficult.

These educators know that "problem students" need them the most. They understand that kind words and simple acts of encouragement can change someone. The investment does make a difference. It definitely did for me.

As I'm getting ready to hold a physical copy of The Goodbyes in my hands, I know it wouldn't have been possible without the very special educators who shaped my life. I'm silently grateful for them every day.

Jackie Sherman, my high school English teacher who not only nurtured my writing, but took me into her home when I had nowhere else to live. Mary Shirey, the assistant principal who counseled me and advocated for me behind the scenes. Deborah Lambert, the extraordinary school psychologist who was always there to listen without judgement. And yes, even Dr. Lawrence Butterini deserves a thank you. After all, a rebellious spirit always needs someone to prove wrong.

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