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Dear Teacher That Helped Us Survive the Eighth Grade

Dear Teacher:

Well, we made it.

I say “we” because I wasn’t sure I was going to survive my son’s eighth-grade year. And there were times I didn’t think he was going to survive without me grounding him until he was 35. And I think every teacher wonders if they will make it through the last weeks of school.

So two words: Thank you.

This year, my kid had problems with his grades—and something much worse, his family.

That’s us. There were plenty of good reasons for that. His entire life, he lived in a three-generation house with two grandparents. It was a chaotic, happy house with too-many-people and too-many-pets (is there such a thing?).

And then both my parents became terminally ill. Mom went first after a grueling year-long battle with a particularly vicious form of breast cancer. And Dad, heartbroken, went two years later, almost to the day, struggling with dementia the whole time. In those years, I was the full-time caregiver for both of them.

My poor teen was raised by wolves.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what he was up to. I mean, we were crammed like sardines in our house. But come bedtime, chances are I was helping Mom from her wheelchair into bed, or administering her medications, or trying to get her to eat. Or later dealing with Dad and his falls and confusion. A crushing grief consumed our house, as if a nuclear mushroom cloud of dark sadness had taken up permanent residence over our roof.

And of course, people at school noticed. Which is kind of the point.

We should function as a tripod, with the kid on one leg of it, and school on another, and home on the third.

Our leg was wobbly.

When the assistant principal called, poor guy, I just sobbed through the conversation. When you, Teacher, called, I wasn’t much better. But we all had one goal: supporting this kid who was incredibly loved, but a little lost.

You were the one to tell me, “It’s eighth grade. He’s going to come through this and go off to high school and be fine. This is the hard stuff of life. He needs space right now.”

I thought that too.

I’ve been parenting for 29 years and I’ve raised his three older siblings, so I know that sometimes all a kid needs is the space to be angry, sad, depressed, and anxious, and to work it out without parents screaming about grades or whatever else parents and adolescents scream about. And I knew if his teachers just gave him some room too, he would come out the other side.

Which is not to say that we didn’t watch him for signs he was sinking or using drugs.

We went to counseling, and the consensus was he needed time. I think in adolescent parlance, I haunted him—and nagged a bit. But as I did with my grief, he went little by little, from barely being able to get up, because of insomnia all night, to a more regular sleep pattern. And then his humor returned. His signature snark was a sign my kid was back.

Next it was my job to reconnect, stronger than ever, because we had all been poisoned by that Hiroshima cloud of grief. But what helped, dear Teacher, was having a supportive teaching team tell us, in the midst of all this, that they cared more about his mental health than his grades.

If we don’t have our mental health, we don’t have much of anything in life, right?

So now it’s summer and we made it through. Just know that for the rest of my life I will be grateful for how you let my family have the space we needed to grieve our losses. And I have my kid’s smile as proof it was the right approach.

Have a great summer.

We all earned it.

Erica Orloff

Erica Orloff is freelance writer and novelist based in Virginia. She is mom of four, a fanatical Yankees fan, and a collector of Buddha statues. Follow her on Twitter: @ericaorloff.