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Annie Chagnot Headshot

Finding Forgiveness

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For four years I spent my days reading about the value of forgiveness. As an assistant editor of spiritual books I sought out, revised, and wrote reviews of works by the great religious and spiritual leaders of our time -- Deepak Chopra, Mother Theresa, His Holiness the Dalai Llama. Intellectually, I knew a lot about this virtue, its profound importance, and the benefits and miracles that follow its use. But it wasn't until I switched careers to teach in a high-need middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that I came to understand at a visceral level just how precious and essential forgiveness is, and how it miraculously plays out in daily life.

One school day, a normally soft-spoken boy made an outrageously offensive comment to a peer while eating lunch in my classroom. I gave him my harshest teacher stare and immediately sent him out. The next morning he handed me a note:

Dear Ms. Chagnot,
I am sorry for my langue in your presents. Yesterday I spend all day thinking about what I did and how it was wrong. I am asking you please to forgive me Please it will not ever happen in front of you, unless someone is brothering me and I have to talk back. But all I am saying is please forgive me.

I smiled. Then, resisting the urge to correct his spelling and grammar, I wrote, "Thank you for your apology. Consider yourself forgiven," signed it, and handed it to him in the hallway between classes, but not before snapping a picture on my phone.

That night I met up with my college friends and read them the letter. My girlfriends laughed at my student's seemingly complete lack of self-awareness, but one of my guy friends pointed out my student's boldness. "That takes real gall to be that honest and up front about it," he insisted. The conversation then turned to the idea of adding such disclaimers to apologies and my friends and I decided that there was something admirable in my student's ability to admit that he would revert to the same misbehavior if someone pressed his buttons like that again. Beyond his willingness to confess his weakness, however, we were impressed with his strength in telling me -- in warning me -- that this was who he was and if he was "brothered" again, for better or worse, he would respond in the same way, and everyone else would just have to deal.

The thing was, his disclaimer wasn't a reason to discard the apology -- it was reason to admire it, and his bravery was all the more impetus for me to offer him sincere forgiveness. Good thing I did too, because I would soon find myself in a similar position: caught between deeply regretting my behavior and knowing it was unavoidable.

After having only taught for four months, I resigned. In the beginning, I had joined the New York City Teaching Fellows (an alternative certification program designed for individuals with no prior teaching experience) for cliché, but real, reasons: Working in corporate book publishing I hadn't felt like I was helping people, I wasn't highly motivated and didn't think I had a great perspective on life, overall. The sitting-at-a-computer-from-nine-to-five days had sunk me too far into my own head, and selfishly, I ached for a job so rigorous, so demanding, selfless, and noble that I would be forced out of myself and then subsequently, naturally, would become the best version of myself. Because that's how it works, right?

Sort of. That's sort of how it works, I've found. It definitely can be, if the circumstances are right. In certain ways I felt as though I became a better version of myself when teaching. I was stronger. I did have a better perspective; any second my brain had to spare was immediately filled with my students -- their faces, needs, and struggles. I didn't think about dating, or care about the minor catfights my girlfriends were engaged in, I hardly ever went on Facebook. I developed a new confidence, one that can only be found by standing in front of 30 hyper-active, hyper-critical 13-year-olds (and overhearing them talking about your body). Two friends told me that I really "lit up" when I first began teaching -- when I was doing an apprenticeship in the Bronx last spring and then when I taught summer school in preparation for my permanent position in Bed-Stuy.

But in other ways I was a worse version of myself. A lunatic, almost. Dealing with the stressful challenges of working in a high-need middle school while simultaneously enrolled in full-time graduate school stretched me to my mental and physical limit. I cried nearly every day. I had constant, searing headaches. I hardly spoke to friends or family. The only people I was showing up for were my students. And then it came to the point where I wasn't, or at least didn't feel as though I was, doing that. For me, that is when the situation became unsustainable. Even though it wasn't expected of me as a first year teacher, I struggled to forgive myself for not succeeding and the fear of not being good enough overwhelmed me to the point of panic. After too much anguished deliberation and teary phone calls to my incredibly patient mother, I handed in my resignation letter halfway through the school year.

It broke my heart to quit, and while I couldn't forgive myself when I was teaching, I now wrestle to forgive myself for leaving. I cared deeply for my students, and loved the daily rush of standing in front of them. Moreover, I believe that I was good at teaching, and that with time I could have been great. When I made the decision to quit I disappointed people I never wanted to let down -- my students, principal, colleagues, professors, and myself. I really disappointed myself.

But in life, failure and disappointment are unavoidable. As one of my students wrote for her six-word memoir, "Life is Easy, then gets Harder." Forgiveness is, I now know -- in my heart and solar plexus, and far beyond my intellect -- the only grace by which we can move forward from our mistakes. Like my precocious, audacious student, although I am not proud of my behavior, and while I am incredibly sorry, I know that I would have to do it again if it came down to it. So from him I have learned much more than I ever did from the most renowned saints and gurus: that all I can do, and what I must do, is ask for forgiveness from others, and work on giving it to myself.

Dear Whomever it May Concern,

I am sorry for quitting the things I've worked so hard for and for leaving the children whose hearts I hold so dearly in my own and in whose eyes I have looked and to whom I have said silently, "I will never give up on you; I will never leave you." I am asking you please to forgive me; I promise I will never quit like that again...

Unless I again find myself in such a seemingly impossible situation where I have lost my health and much of my mind and a lot my livelihood and I've been given a prescription for anxiety pills and I use my walk home from the subway to cry fiercely, sometimes pretending I'm on the phone receiving awful news when my phone is really turned off, and I finally realize that I cannot serve others -- cannot serve "the child" -- when I have not yet put the oxygen mask on myself first. If this is ever the case again, I will quit. In a heartbeat, and without (much) hesitation. Know this.

But all I am saying is please forgive me.


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