Our home turned 90 this year. Fragments of its history surround us. A book of poems written by the first owner, passed to each succeeding owner. Drips of paint on the attic floor from the artist-owner who painted portraits there. Shards of original terracotta roof tiles buried in the flower beds. 

But my favorite mementos of its past are the toys in the air ducts, left by the six year old who lived here before us. I discovered his treasures when I vacuumed the first time. Lifting the cast-iron floor grates to stick the hose down the metal ducts, I sucked up little green army men, a head from a Star Wars action figure, and Lego pieces. 

They clattered when I tossed them back in. How the little guy must have loved that sound! 

I smiled. He’d left behind gifts that had surprised and charmed me. I like the thought that all the treasures of our house–including his toys–will be here for the next owners to discover.

There’s something delightful about giving gifts without knowing who will find them or how they’ll be received.

Teaching is like that. Every student leaves behind a precious gift, a piece of his childhood, that makes a difference in my life. And I hope that every child takes with him a treasure, a memento that says I made a difference in his life during our year together.

Still, sometimes I wonder if what I do really matters. I find joy in my students, but after twenty years, I’m struggling with the stress of the day-to-day job. My strength is my creativity. But it’s also my Kryptonite as teaching becomes more and more focused on what I’m least competent and interested in: data collection, reports, and analysis; progress monitoring; testing, testing, testing; and meetings to discuss it all. 

As these things absorb my time both in and out of the classroom, I feel my creativity wither like a neglected plant in a sunny window.

I think the weight of it all would crush me if not for my students. But maybe the weight of it would crush my students if not for me.

I struggle most when weeks–or months or years–go by without my knowing if I’ve made a difference. To help me through those desert times, I keep a file of heartfelt notes from current or former students.

It includes notes from students telling me they were accepted into creative writing programs and won national awards. I like to think I dropped something into their lives that nurtured their talent and nudged them forward on their writing journey.

One year, a sixth grader wrote a note thanking me for believing in him when no one else did. (Granted, his teacher forced those hormonal preteens to write a thank-you note to a former teacher. Still, he thought of me.) 

Another thanked me for helping her believe she could write. This one ended with every English teacher’s nightmare: “Your the best!” I’m glad that student believes she can write. And I apologize to the high school teacher who will break the news to her that she still has a ways to go.

At the symphony one night, parents thanked me for showing them their son’s potential a decade ago. They’d been skeptical when I pointed out his talent for writing, buried beneath horrendous spelling and run-on sentences. Now he travels the world and writes a blog about his discoveries.

Most recently, I attended a former student’s art opening. When she thanked me for nurturing her creativity, I almost cried. It had been a draining week of mid-year testing and report cards, when I rummage through all the data to quantify the learning and behavior of eight year olds. I needed her affirmation.

These notes and moments are clues, showing me what mementos I’ve left with students. Encouragement. Confidence. Opening themselves to themselves. Helping parents see them in a new light.

It feels uncomfortable to write about them. Like bragging. Or begging for affirmation. But I’ve got to remember–and encourage other educators to remember–that we make a difference. Believing this is what will keep us going in a job that has become increasingly difficult and stressful. 

We’ll never know the difference we’ve made for most of our students. Truth is, they may not either. But we can hope that someday, something will clatter through their minds and hearts that will remind them we were there. We can also draw delight from giving gifts without knowing which students will find them or how they’ll be received. 

Just like the splatters of paint, shards of tile, and toys from a child have enriched my life in ways those who left them behind will never know.