Your Tears Won’t Save You Now: Life Lessons From A Middle School Classroom

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Anna (name changed for privacy reasons) was bawling her eyes out, tears streaming off of her face and dripping onto the review sheet on her desk.

She was trying to catch her breath and stay silent all at the same time. But that was no easy task when you’re as worked up as she was.

Her face was a crimson red, her teeth were clenched, and you could almost feel the palpable disdain she felt for me at that moment in time.

I had to do something quickly.

Not because of her current state, but because of what would likely happen if she didn’t snap out of her emotional outburst.

About 5 minutes prior, Anna walked into the classroom.

Welcome back, Anna, hope you’re feeling better. Ready to take the test today?

Anna was ill the day before, and had missed our last review to the test.

What are you talking about, Mr. Helmes? I missed the review. I can’t take the test today………

After Anna had said that, my heart fluttered a beat or two. Even after 12 years in the classroom, it’s not an easy task to deal with confrontation in your kingdom.

Perhaps some teachers would allow the extension and given Anna another day to study.

But I always had the same rule in my classroom. The rule was explained at the start of the year, and it was always maintained with 100% consistency during with every unit.

If a student misses direct instruction on a skill or a lesson which will be on the test, and is absent up until the test, they can have an extension.

However, if a student is present for all the direct instruction, and misses the review only, they take the test.

Anna had missed no direct instruction; she had simply missed the review.

She was going to have to take the test.

After all, it was April. She knew the rule. She was no first timer.

I took a breath, calmed my nerves, and said to her:

Anna, you know the rule. You didn’t miss any lessons. 

You’ll be fine.

You’re going to take the test today.

Anna’s face scrunched up and tears started forming in the corner of her eyes.

Her cheeks flushed with anger, and she sauntered to her seat, loudly pulling out the chair and slamming her notebook onto her desk.

I went about my business, instructing the class to take out their review and do a last-minute, 15 minute skill check.

I began reviewing the material, and calmly grabbed an extra copy of the review and placed one in front of her on her desk as I was teaching.

I doubt Anna could even see the words on the page through her tears.

It wasn’t that Anna wasn’t capable. She was every teacher’s dream.






I knew she had the ability to ace the test.

Her main problem at that moment wasn’t her mathematical abilities.

It was her own self-limiting belief of helplessness.

I had to do something.

I couldn’t let a perfectly capable student fail a test due to excessive emotions. I had to get through to her. I knew if she completed the last-minute review with the rest of the class, she would get her normal fantastic grade on the assessment.

I paused while reviewing and said softly to the class:

Let’s take a minute or two and review the next two problems with a neighbor.

Anna, come talk to me in the hallway please.

Anna rolled her eyes, pushed her chair back, and followed me through the open door.

She began to object immediately, but I cut her off.

Anna, you know how this works. This isn’t the first time this has happened to a student in this class.

You were absent yesterday, but we didn’t have any new material yesterday.

You were present for every lesson that will be covered on this test.

There is one fact right now.

You are taking this test today.

Your tears are not going to change the fact that you are taking this test today.

Whether you are upset or not means no difference to me. 

By the time this class is over, you will have taken the test and turned it in.

You have two options at this very moment:

Option 1:  Continue to cry, be pissed at me, miss the review, and wing the test, praying for a good grade.

Option 2:  Control your emotions, accept the fact that you’re taking the test, zone in on the review, and do the best you can.

The option is yours, so choose wisely.

Please head back to your seat.

Anna let out a sigh of disgust, rolled her eyes yet again, and turned away from me to head back into the classroom.

In 12 years, I have never seen such a rapid turnaround in the classroom.

Anna became possessed. She wiped her tears off on her sleeve, took a deep breath, grabbed a pencil, and locked in like a World War II fighter pilot trying desperately to shoot down the enemy.

After 10 minutes of vigorous review, I even saw a smile of confidence trying to creep out from the corners of her mouth.

I smiled just a bit myself.

Anna was going to be just fine.


In life, we are constantly reacting to stimuli in our environments.

Someone cuts us off in traffic.

Our car breaks down and we have to use our credit cards to pay for the repairs.

Our boss reprimands us over something which wasn’t our responsibility.

Our kid gets sick and we have to postpone a family vacation.

These events create a response within us.

Sometimes, we get frustrated.

We may cry.

We may brood.

We may stew in our own misery.

We may turn to a “pacifier”. Food. Alcohol. Drugs.

Pick your poison.

We create excuses and reasons for our shortcomings.

We justify the moments which have passed us by, and create narratives to explain our failures.

The phrase “There’s no use crying over spilled milk” comes to mind when these situations arise.

Anna received a 92% on the test – right on par with her usual results.

The day after the test, she walked into the classroom beaming, proudly exclaiming:

Mr. Helmes, I really think I did great on that test! I understood everything!

I smiled and told her I was happy for her.

And that I knew she was capable of pulling an awesome grade.

In the classroom that day, Anna learned a bit more than how to properly create a linear equation.

She learned a valuable lesson about life.


What “story” are you telling yourself?

Is there some jerk-face teacher who “has it in for you”?

Is the jerk-face your boss?

A co-worker?

A family member you’ve had a disagreement with?

Are you conscious about your current health?

Are you longing to be someone – or something – else entirely?

As Anna learned in the classroom on that fateful day in April, the past is in the past and it will not change, despite your efforts.

The only things which will change your future are the actions you create in the present.




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