“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“Would it be so bad if I just dropped out?” my student asked me, huddled over her ninth grade math homework. We made eye contact for a split second, then she looked back down and continued doodling in her notebook.

Despite her timid delivery, her question was earnest. She had already experienced more hardship than most people face in a lifetime, and every day she confronted the grueling trial of living in a world that expected her to fail. I reflected on my own contrasting privilege and my own insecurities, and I doubted if my encouragement could ever be enough.

As I searched for the right words―or really any words at all―my mind was flooded with countless memories of other students fighting the odds. From Delhi to Boston, my lesson plans clashed with the realities of poverty, politics, and human conflict. My students’ aspirations were stymied by adults who had written them off.

“Don’t waste your time with these students,” one teacher had told me decisively, while “these” students were well within earshot.

Had I said the right things in these moments? Did I make any difference in their lives? Honestly, I think doubt will follow me around forever, but maybe that’s okay.

When I don’t believe in myself, I still believe in them.

— Meg Whittenberger