The day I met Jenna Parlette, she walked into my social studies class wearing splatter-painted blue jeans, a side pony-tail, and an unforgettably bright smile. I eyed her curiously. As a twenty-something teacher, I didn't know much about 7th grade fashion, but I knew this wasn't the "cool" look. Jenna stood out. I figured she was trying to make a statement. Assert her independence. Shock people. I've seen this before. This will be out of her system in a couple days, I thought.
It took about 55 minutes for me to realize that I was wrong. When the bell rang, Jenna stood up, walked toward the door, and then stopped. "Thanks for teaching me today, Miss Breedlove," she announced before bouncing out of class with a smile. There was something about the way she said these words and looked me in the eye that told me she meant it. She wasn't just trying to earn brownie points on the first day. No, this girl was different.
Over the next few weeks, I often found myself studying Jenna. I'd watch the way she interacted with others. I'd watch her stop in the hallway to pick up a stranger's books, or strike up conversation with a boy everyone else had forgotten. I'd watch her dance her way to class or tell someone a wide-eyed story with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. I'd watch her pair those splatter-painted jeans with a bright hula top or a homemade t-shirt. Those crazy jeans weren't a "statement," as I'd originally thought; they simply made her happy. And every day at the end of class, she always stopped to thank me for teaching her. Always.
One day, I asked her why she always thanked me for teaching her. She looked at me like I was crazy. "Why wouldn't I?" she asked, as though it was the silliest question in the world.
Pretty soon, it became clear that other people were watching Jenna, too. Middle school can be a cruel time for so many kids, but that year, something was different. To state it simply, kids were nicer to each other. They didn't place as much emphasis on conformity, and instead, began to emulate Jenna's free spirit. Jenna believed in "happy," and it was contagious.
They say that teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but most will admit that there are certain students every year who capture our hearts. But only a few times in a career, if we are lucky, do we encounter a student like Jenna -- a student who flips the student-teacher dynamic around entirely. I always thought I was supposed to be the one teaching the lessons, but I have a feeling I learned more from Jenna in my 180 hours with her than she ever learned from me.
Thank you for teaching me, Jenna.
Note: Jenna passed away suddenly in September, 2013. She was 20 years old. I wrote this entry the day I found out. For more information on the legacy this beautiful girl created, please visit www.jennastrong.org.