Dear Ms Smith,
My third day of Year 9 and you made me do one of the bravest things I’d done in all my almost 14 and a half years of life. The topic was Grits, Guts and Determination and you had asked us to write down ‘the hardest thing I’d ever done’ and hand it in to you. I very nearly didn’t do it. I’m not one for lying so if I wasn’t going to tell you a truth then I wouldn’t do it at all. But there was something about you that made me want to trust you – to edge warily onto that tree limb because maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t snap beneath me. So I wrote something for you. It felt short and inadequate. I wanted to say something about my father but everything felt too much. Instead I wrote about my brother and very little at that. I told you that the hardest thing I had ever done was something ongoing and that was living with my brother.
If you can believe it, I had never told anyone about my brother and his problems with mental health. That’s the difficulty with illnesses in the mind – no one can see them. When the problem first started arising, it was the cause of much embarrassment for me. I remember sitting in the car with a friend while my brother raged beside us and how later she told me what she thought of him. All people ever saw when they looked at my brother was a really bad kid who wouldn’t obey a single command. They couldn’t understand the full extent. At some point in primary school I just stopped inviting friends over to my house because it was just too risky. If I complained about him my friends would complain about their brothers and I didn’t know how to explain that mine was different. So somehow it became this whole section of my life that I never spoke of and as I grew up and made new friends who never came near my house, I was given a blank slate. I never said a word to anyone. Until you, Ms Smith.
I remember the day I had to had it in and I was so nervous that I was still in two minds about whether I would even give it to you. My friend had written about skiing down a mountain slope but I refused to let her read mine and all the while the tension was building until suddenly it was done and out of my hands and into yours. And then you gave them back in a few days and thanked people for their honesty and that was it. No big moment but for me it was huge. Someone in the world knew – knew very little, just a handful of paragraphs, really, but knew all the same. And they hadn’t dismissed me or walked away and left.
Six months later something happened which made all the things I never spoke about start building up and demanding to be spoken. In an effort to release the pressure I started writing letters. The first one I wrote to you. For all of the reasons listed above. I wrote fifteen in total, to a variety of people. I never intended to send them, I just needed a place to spill all my secrets.
Eventually, those letters led to me actually speaking to someone in person. Now there’s practically a whole world of people who know the things I used to never speak about. Well, more like two handfuls though that’s a lot in comparison. But you were the first and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to tell the others if it weren’t for you. So thank you, a thousand times thank you, and I wish I could have told you this in person.
Except you died on Sunday in a freak motorcycle accident the day after your son’s wedding. And none of that is fair.
I don’t know how but you always seemed to have an idea of what was going on for me and every time you patted my shoulder or told me to ‘keep going’ it was slightly more bearable knowing someone else in the world cared about me. And there’s still so many girls who need that from you.
But you’re no longer here to give it. So here’s one last letter for you. You were a fantastic English teacher. You made us all laugh. Your writing was absolutely shocking. There was not enough chocolate in the world for you. You had that spark people talk about. You made sure we knew that you cared about us. Thank you.