I am in fifth grade. For the first time in what seems to be forever in the eyes of a ten year old I am genuinely proud of my recent completed project. The task? To research a college I could potentially see myself attending in seven or eight years. I walk up to the front, report in hand, pony tail swishing back in forth, dressed in my all time favorite Limited-Too ensemble for good luck and confidence inflected in my voice. Here I go. As I finish speaking with the feeling of accomplishment pouring out of me, my teacher takes off her glasses and poses the question “Do you know what kind of grades it takes to get into UCLA?” Accepting the question I stand up straight, respond enthusiastically with “All A’s and B’s!” She heads to the overhead projector (long before the invention of Docu Cameras) and writes down the grade percentage I would need to achieve to be accepted by UCLA in front of my entire class. She proceeds to ask another question “Do you really think you can earn these grades for the next 7 years?” At this point my smile is upside down and my feeling of accomplishment has been substituted for embarrassment. I reach for my pony tail to find comfort in something and respond with a whisper of “I think so” and in a matter of moments my ten year old dream is shot entirely by her following response: “Oh Samantha, I think you need to think of a back up plan. Researching a different college would probably be best in your case.” I race back to my seat and felt my face burn of shame in my hands and hot tears flood my eyes.
I am in seventh grade. Twelve years old at this point, with my parents sitting in my fourth teacher conference of the school year. Its only December. The school counselor opens my file, which is a novel and poses a question I don’t know the answer to… “Samantha do you know what grade colleges start looking at your test scores?” I respond with a glimmer of hope in my voice that I thought it was tenth. Looking at my records she states “that’s a mistake most students make, it’s actually right now.” If fear, disappointment, and defeat could all be reflected synonymously, it would be in this moment. If she were right there is no way someone like me would be going to college.
I felt my face burn of shame in my hands and hot tears flood my eyes.
I am a Sophomore. Fifteen years old now and present for yet another meeting. Don’t worry, I’ve drafted a few more professionals on my team besides my teachers and school counselor. Now invited to these riveting meetings I have the School Psychologist, Special Education Specialist, Guidance Counselor, the Principal, all six of my teachers and the true MVPS-mom, dad and sometimes grandma. If there were an award for the most parent-teacher conferences to have in one year, I would’ve won first place. By this point in my life I have established three common ground rules for myself during these meetings: Don’t look at your file, don’t speak unless spoken to and cry later. This meeting was unlike any other meeting because one thing was present that was absent in every other meeting: Hope. Instead of the broken record speech about how my IQ was too high to receive Special Education accommodations for my learning disability, I was told “I think there is something we can do, I think I can help.” To this day that statement is music to my ears and words I hold very close to my heart. Thank you Ms. Karp for your belief in me in this moment and beyond.
I did not feel the burn of shame in my hands. Hot tears did not flood my eyes.
I am now a senior in college. Twenty-two years old, a month away from graduation and four months away from pursuing my dream career as a teacher. How did I get from that hopeless fifteen year old teenager to here? My answer is simple. My teachers.
To every single one of my teachers- The good, the bad, the damaging and the inspiring,
Thank you to the teachers who told me to “consider other colleges.” Who reported to my parents that I was lazy, did not try and who suggested my parents take dance classes away. Thank you to the education “professionals” who told me my IQ was too high for Special Education accommodations. Who didn’t believe in my capability or capacity to process complex information and who limited my future and dreams as a result of my learning disability. Thank you to the teachers and professionals who were responsible for my tears, who told me “I can’t” more than “I can” and who crushed my confidence. Without you, I would never have been able to wholeheartedly appreciate the value of compassionate teachers and fathom the power a teacher’s unconditional love for their students. Without you, I wouldn’t have found my passion to serve as an advocate for student’s with disabilities. Without you, I never would have found my internal drive to fight against your words and prove them wrong. Without you, I never would have pushed myself as hard as I have and continue to do. Without you, I wouldn’t have a model of teachers I will never be for my future students. A statement that may sting and drip with anger but raw and some of the most important life lessons I’ve discovered as an aspiring future educator has been reflecting on having you as a teacher. I never would have fallen in love with teaching as much as I have without the experiences in your class. I never would have developed a deep, limitless and unconditional love for inclusion and for children who struggle, learn differently and have disabilities. Someone needs to to be their support system, their source of comfort, tell them “they can” and celebrate their victories. Someone needs to tell them that people like you who tell them “they can’t” are wrong. Someone needs to stand with them when life is dark and be the light. That someone, who you once degraded is me. I advocate and believe in them because teachers like you don’t. It is a strong passion of mine that I never would have discovered without you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart because I would not be where I am today without you. My biggest thank you is for being the teachers you were, because without you I never would have meet my all time favorite teachers who have forever impacted my heart. It was because of you, I was led to them. It was because of you I needed them.
Thank you to the teachers who fought for me when no one else wanted to stand beside be in battle. To the teachers who saw me as a human with feelings, passions, dreams and goals instead of seeing me as a test score, statistic or a grade. Thank you to the teachers who stayed hours after school helping me prepare for tests, presentations and papers due. Thank you to the teachers who wiped my many tears shed during math class and took the time to know me as a learner and reteach lessons that was catered to my dominant learning style. Thank you to the teachers who cared deeply about my being far beyond the classroom. Who came to my dance recitals, kept in touch after graduation and wrote letters of recommendation for potential jobs. Thank you to the teachers who taught me how to be my own best friend, how to self-advocate and who helped me find my voice. Thank you to the teachers who celebrated my first semester of straight A’s with me, who applauded progress over perfection and saw mistakes as an opportunity for growth. Thank you to the teachers who showed me getting to college was an attainable goal not out of my reach when society told me otherwise. You are the role models who have constructed and shaped my own expectations of what a successful teacher is. You are my life evidence and visual when I think of success, selflessness and servant leaders. You were the face of advocation for myself and others when no one else was. You went above and beyond to ensure I had access to everything I needed to not only be successful for one, two or three years, but to be successful AND HAPPY long after my time in school ends. I strive to be the teacher you were to me for my future students. If I am half the teacher you are then I can authentically say one of my dreams came true. Thank you for demonstrating that unconditional love is not an adjective but a verb and is the most important thing a student can take away from a classroom. Thank you for emulating unconditional love every single day. Thank you for being tangible hope in my life so that I can now be tangible hope for others.
I think about all the teachers I’ve had quite often. When I’m sitting in classes I’m passionate about, when I’m up until all hours of the night working on homework, when I receive an A and when I receive a grade other than an A. I think of them when I’m organizing my tasks for the week, when I’m studying for an exam, when I’m in tears over stress and when I feel like I could rule the world. I think of them most when I tutor the forty children I’ve fallen completely in love with over the past two and a half years. Most of all, I think of them when I fall more and more in love with teaching and when I adopt children’s struggles, triumphs, goals and defeats as my own because that is what they did (or did not do) for me.
Thank you to all my teachers who relentlessly showed up for me and my potential with open hands nothing but love to offer. This one is for you, all you are and all you do. Where I found hope, I found you.