My math teacher refused to let me fall through the cracks. It saved my life.

Mr. W was the busiest person I knew, but he always took five minutes out of his day to make sure I was OK.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Content warning: This essay contains references to self-harm and suicidal ideation.

I was 12 when I thought everyone had given up on me. Feeling like a burden to my family, my teachers, and even the mental health professionals I’d seen, I had given up on myself, too. Sixth grade marked the first time I’d wanted to die, and seventh grade marked the first time I tried to make it happen.

When you’re 12, six years feels like an eternity, so it’s hard to imagine making it to the finish line of a tumultuous adolescence. Many suicidal kids don’t necessarily want to die, but hopelessness is a powerful stranglehold when you have little or no control over your circumstances. Back then, I leaned into my persona as the weird, angry kid to push people away before I could get attached. I’ve since learned in therapy that it’s a common coping mechanism among those who feel rejected at home.

But there was one adult in my life who never gave up on me. One person who wasn’t scared off by my biting sarcasm, chaotic behavior, and tendency to shut down when I struggled with my schoolwork: my seventh grade math teacher, Mr. W.

Young woman with brown hair and green eyes wears a yellow plaid top and a matching hair tie.
Xandra Harbet (Courtesy of Xandra Harbet)

Between coaching swimming and going for his doctorate, Mr. W was the busiest person I knew, but he refused to let me fall off the face of the Earth. Mr. W spent lunch periods painstakingly explaining each problem in my dreaded skill sheet assignment. The weekly worksheet consisted of problems unrelated to that year’s coursework, and my neurodivergent brain just couldn’t unravel what felt like riddles from the sphinxes that populated the fantasy worlds I used to escape reality.

When he saw that this particular assignment led me to stop trying altogether, he decided to let me skip it, so long as I completed my daily homework. Some teachers refuse to make allowances for kids who think differently. But Mr. W’s accommodations turned a dejected student into someone who made an effort. As a result, I was able to improve my grade.

Mr. W’s class was right before lunch, and I tend to tear up when I yawn, which was a common occurrence in math class. (Sorry, Mr. W.) During these teary-eyed moments, Mr. W would always make sure I was OK, despite the 20 other students in the classroom. That small act of care meant a lot.

My two-week stint in the psychiatric ward, which followed my suicide attempt, felt more like a prison sentence than a saving grace. The monotony of hours with only my thoughts and the yellowing walls to keep me company was excruciating. There was no music, TV, or any of the distractions that helped keep me afloat outside of these dirty walls. It was just about the worst thing you could do to a kid with my potent combination of ADHD and a mood disorder. Visits from Mr. W were the highlight of my time there, providing a dose of normalcy and lighthearted banter that allowed me to forget where I was for a little while.

I had plenty of teachers who cared about me in middle school and the years that followed. However, most of my relationships with adults — both in and beyond school — felt like obligatory transactions. But it was different with Mr. W. He wasn’t trying to turn me into someone I wasn’t or even into an A-student in math. He just wanted to remind me that I mattered; importantly, he remembered to carve out the time and space to do that.

Every day, he offered me five minutes of undivided attention when I could vent, talk about my life, or recap in detail whatever TV show I was obsessing over that week. This continued the following year when he let me eat lunch in his classroom during his free period, even though he wasn’t even my teacher anymore.

When I was in high school, I went back to visit Mr. W weekly, and I remember telling him about the gym teacher who asked how I could live with myself for not taking initiative during whatever tedious drills he was having us do. “He has no idea,” my former math teacher told me, and I have never felt more understood.

Years on, I would occasionally visit his classroom on breaks from college, and without fail, he’d set aside five minutes for me. It’s been a while since I’ve made it back to my old middle school for a visit, but I still keep in touch with Mr. W.

Life is messy, and it’s easy to get swept up in the grind. Too often, children and teens feel dismissed by the busy adults in their lives, which can have real and devastating consequences. I know from experience that the inverse is true, too. Five minutes of recognition and kindness can be lifesaving for a young person who is struggling.

If it weren’t for Mr. W, I might not be here today. On some level, he knew that his time made a difference for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote him a letter inscribed on the author page of my first published short story that he realized he had helped save my life.

Xandra Harbet is a journalist, essayist, and creative writer with bylines in outlets including Salon, Insider, The Daily Dot, Regal, and StyleCaster. She has a BA in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing from the haunted halls of Randolph College. You can find her on social media @XandraHarbet.