It was four-year old Deanna who made me gasp for fresh air when she clung to me and who gave me my teaching mantra. Deanna smelled of cat litter and mice and unwashed clothes and filled-up potty chairs. And she, more than all her siblings, bore the angst of her mother who was nineteen years old, single, struggling with alcohol, overwhelmed by four preschoolers, and already disillusioned with life.
I came to see Deanna’s mother each week as a home visitor for Head Start. My job was to help her get Deanna ready for school. Deanna, by all counts, was already at academic risk.
“Don’t leave me here, teacher,” Deanna would beg at the end of every visit. I’d pry her hands from around my neck and set her down. She’d stand there, tiny and cute behind the grime, with her hair in ringlets about her face and her eyes deep and knowing.
And I’d leave her there.
But one day, Deanna and her family disappeared. Children’s Services had been coming around too often, asking too many questions.
I sat in the car outside Deanna’s empty house that day wondering what would happen with Deanna. And hoping with a deep yearning that when Deanna was a teenager, perhaps unruly and disruptive, when she was an adult, perhaps flailing and perturbing people around her—that someone would intuit her backstory and appreciate her struggle.
I never saw Deanna again.
But later I found swaggering John in my middle school classroom. John sapped my energy and elevated my stress. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”
I taught the bullies of a girl who committed suicide. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”
“Remember Deanna,” I reminded myself when I stood before rapists in my prison classroom.
I kept looking for Deanna. And I kept finding her. Only not in in a four-year-old body with ringlets around her face.