a letter to my students, from the very worst guidance counselor

I sat in a job interview about two years ago and promised a room full of important people that I would do a very, very good job telling all of you how to do well on the ACT and SAT. I was wearing a red dress and heels. My hair was longer than it is now. I promised them that I would be good at running those tests and figuring out which school you could maybe get into if you got certain scores on them, and then how to raise those scores. They asked if I would be able to handle it when your parents got upset about your grades, and I said yes. They asked if I would go to conferences and take good notes, if I knew how to run a graduation plan meeting, if I could coach you through filling out paperwork.  

But they never asked me what I would do if one of you was suicidal. They never asked me what I would do if one of you sat down in the chair across from me and said that your parents were getting a divorce, or that your mom kicked you out last night, or that your brother died. They never asked me what I would say to you if you were transgender and were upset that the ROTC department wouldn’t let you wear the female uniform even though that’s your gender identity. Don’t even get me started on when I asked them if you could use the faculty bathroom so you felt more comfortable. They just never asked.

They didn’t know then and they don’t know now that I would walk one of you through getting out of your abusive relationship and that you’re probably going to be in my wedding as a result. They told me to make sure you got to class on time.


They didn’t tell me to show up at your little brother’s funeral and hold your cousins while they sobbed because no other adults were around. They told me to make sure you passed government.


They didn’t tell me to meet with you several times a week for two years to coach you through your anxiety and family issues. They told me to make sure you knew which college classes to sign up for next year.


They didn’t know that I would spend three weeks getting to work over an hour early with Chick-fil-A biscuits every day so that you could make up the hours you missed in Econ. They told me to make sure you graduated on time.


They didn’t know that I’d be the only adult in the building who you felt comfortable talking to about coming out of the closet and dating another girl for the first time. They told me to make sure you followed the dress code.


They didn’t know that you would come to me crying because your dad was running a meth lab because he didn’t know how else to pay the bills. They told me to make sure you didn’t hurt the school’s EOC scores.


They didn’t know that I would go through 27 boxes of tissues and probably even more boxes of Pop Tarts, because if I couldn’t fix anything else in your lives, you’d better believe I was going to make sure that your tears were dried and you had something to eat.


I’m sorry if I was ever one of them, who told you that only the numbers and rules and policies and procedures mattered. I’m sorry if I ever slipped and made you feel like you were only as good the words on your discipline referral. I’m sorry if I ever told you that it was good enough if your dream was to pass math. I’m sorry if I ever made you think that’s all the world is about. I’m sorry if I got so caught up in paperwork that I forgot to tell you that your dreams can fill up the whole sky if you want them to. They can be to pass math, or they can fill up the whole sky, or they can be anything in-between. It’s up to you. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel just average when you are actually magic.


Instead, I hope I helped you see that you can change the world. You’re going to. I just know it. You’re going to change it. This is a mountain I’m willing to die on. I don’t care if you got into Yale or if you couldn’t get a job after you graduated. Honestly, I don’t care if you graduated or not. I’m supposed to say that’s important, but some of you had babies or had hard things happen and needed to delay that for a little bit or had a lot going on at home with your mom and couldn’t make it to first block every day, so you missed it 42 times. Some of you dropped out before you graduated. That made me cry, and I hope you will reach out to me if I can ever do anything for you, and I mean that.


They don’t know those stories, but I do. They didn’t listen to those stories, but I did.


That’s what made me the very worst guidance counselor.

I cared more about you than I did about your report cards. I didn’t care that you were failing; I cared about why.


What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that there are things in the world that are more important than if you passed your end-of-course test, or if you finish high school on time, or what grades you make. Those are all things that are important, but what’s more important is if you learned how to believe in yourself. You have gifts, you have gifts, you have gifts. Let me say it again: you have gifts! You don’t even know what all of them are yet! I don’t know what all of mine are, and I’m 25, so don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have a clue yet, okay?


What I hope you learned from me is that your life has so much potential. There is so much within you; there is everything within you. I don’t care if you use a comma correctly every single time, sorry friends in the English department; I care about if you wake up every day knowing that you are so loved beyond belief, and believed in without measure, and that people can only stop you if you let them. You are worth everything. Now. Today. I don’t care if you’re packing the car for college or heading off to basic training or if you’re going to be sitting on the couch for another couple of years trying to figure it all out.



If you were in my homeroom, I told you a story on the first day of school two years ago. It was a story about my best friend Maggie, who died that summer. She was also a school counselor and the best person I’d ever known, and her students and friends and family loved her so, so much. She inspired everyone around her. She was a masterpiece. I kept her picture by my computer screen these last two years. I looked at it every day, as a reminder that I just needed to tell each one of you that you were loved and believed in. But I kept getting in trouble for that. For keeping you out of class too long, for talking too much, for not getting paperwork done in time even though it was because your lives were falling apart, or you needed a pep talk, or I did. I looked at it every day, as a reminder. I packed it up today when I cleaned out my office, and I wondered if I had failed you. If I did enough, if I loved hard enough, or well enough, or all the way. If you knew. If my job was to make sure you met the mark and passed and were the cream of the crop, I failed you. If it was to make sure you knew that I had time for you and loved you and believed in you, if I was the very worst guidance counselor, but an even half okay lover of people, I feel good about that.


It was 100% my honor getting to watch you grow and change and struggle, fail and triumph, laugh and jump for joy and sob uncontrollably because you missed your grandmother or slept through the ACT. You changed my life absolutely forever. You inspired me to do what Maggie and I had dreamed up for me all along, which is to go into private practice and be the Oprah of mental health advocacy and help so many people. I’m sorry I have to leave you, but I’ll always be here for you if you need me. Please don’t forget it.

Ms. Phillips