A Letter to My High School Religion Teacher
Dear Mr. S.:
You might not remember me, but I remember you. You were the new. young 9th grade teacher who wanted to be considered ‘cool’ by your students. You were my teacher for a semester, for the “Death and Dying” class, one of the most important classes I took in high school.
I remember the day my friends and I joked around with you in the hallway. I had been feeling very outgoing around that time of high school. My best friend at the time was so confident that she did handstands on the lawn in front of the school, leaving infatuated freshman in her wake. I went along with her for this joyride. I remember the exact spot where you spoke with me and my friends—in front of the Writing Center on the first floor. You responded to a joke I made by melodramatically shaking my hand. You thought this was funny—and it would have been if my hands hadn’t been so sweaty. You weren’t trying to hurt anyone. You just wanted to joke around with your students. I tried to snatch away my hand, but you shook it anyway, pumping it up and down several times.
“Eeeww!” you exclaimed in a voice that seemed louder than the school’s PA system. “Wet fish! Wet fish! Your hands so sweaty!” Everyone, including you, looked at me and laughed.
What you didn’t know is that I have a medical condition, hyperhidrosis. What I believed back then is that there was something fundamentally screwed up about me because of this condition. I vowed to protect myself by avoiding any situation in which my excessive sweat might be exposed—i.e., most situations involving social interaction. Not a formula for a happy high school experience.
This joke was at my expense, and I paid a big price. To this day, I can see you and several students laughing at me. You, a teacher, someone I was supposed to trust, mocking me in front of my classmates. If I couldn’t trust my teachers or my parents to help me deal with my medical condition, then who could I trust? Why couldn’t I have normal hands and feet? You weren’t the only one to laugh or cringe at my sweaty palms. And each time I was laughed at, I vowed never to this happen again. I would protect myself at all costs. So I faded into the background, where it was safe but lonely.
I don’t want to be 35 years old complaining about high school. I do not hate you, Mr. S. I know you cared about the students and did your best to be a good teacher. I just want you and other teachers to know how much an innocent joke can hurt a self-conscious student alone in dealing with her medical condition. And I suppose I need to admit to myself how much pain I felt because of these experiences from my schooldays. A bottled-up feeling has to come out somehow, whether in a constructive or harmful way, whether sooner or later.
In our “Death and Dying,” class we learned the five stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I am grieving, too. All the time lost feeling bad about myself because of my sweat. The friendships that might have been had I been able to open myself to others. And the adventures I might have had.
Many days, more often than not, I feel strong and confident. Today, I feel sad. That lonely, scared, angry teenage girl is still part of me, and she has some things that need to be said. Though these feelings are messy, I will let them come out because they must. And I am learning to receive them with loving kindness.