The Teacher Who Changed My Life

            Academics did not come easy for me. The alphabet made no sense, so I couldn’t read or write. While math was easy, time and money stumped me. No one had ever read to me and there were few books in our house, so that was probably the main reason that everything was so hard.

            I did attend preschool for a while. I recall that the teachers were nice, but they only gave me assignments that involved coloring alone, at my desk. Kindergarten wasn’t much better.

            The one skill that I did master was being invisible. I was the student who disappeared into her desk. When my reading group was called to the front of the room, I scooted down so far that only my forehead was above the desk. If the teacher had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I was missing, but she seldom did.

            My returned papers had poor grades. When I realized how poorly I was doing, I decided to teach myself. My determination was what helped me succeed.

            I still struggled, so much so that at the end of each year, when the teacher called me to her desk and marked on my report card whether or not I had passed, I never knew what would happen. It could easily have gone either way. Repeating a grade might have been the best thing for me except for the punishment I’d have gotten at home.

            Along the way my academic skills improved, enough so that by the time I went to high school I was able to enroll in the more challenging courses. I was on was on the college-bound track. Even so, English was still difficult.

            My ninth grade English teacher seldom called on me, which was good, because most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d ask about theme, moral of the story and characterization. What I thought was the theme, was never what he thought. My interpretation of moral was always wrong. I confused characters and so didn’t “get” what one character intended or meant or said.

            There was one time when the teacher called on me to answer a question. I had thought I knew the answer, but I froze. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I replied, “I don’t know.” Not only did he laugh at me, but so did all of my classmates.

            When we moved to California, I had a chance to start over with new classmates, in a new school where none of the teachers knew my history. My Algebra teacher was Mr. Kjekegard, a short, squat, ruddy-faced, pleasant man. He was incredibly patient and explained things in a way that not only made sense, but allowed me to excel.

            Mr. K saw something in me that no previous teacher had seen: a person capable of becoming whatever she wanted to be. When the class was working independently, he often stopped by my desk to give words of encouragement. Sometimes when class ended, he called me to his desk and commented about how well I was doing.

            His demeanor and support encouraged me to work harder, to master complex problems and to push ahead of the class. When he asked for students to come to the board to solve problems, I frequently volunteered, something I had never done before.

            He didn’t teach Geometry, so I had a new teacher, one who was not patient or kind. I found Geometry complex and confusing. It didn’t follow any mathematical principles that made sense to me. No matter how hard I worked, I struggled. The teacher offered no help or encouragement.

            My senior year I was assigned to Mr. K’s class for Trigonometry. I rejoiced when I saw his name on my course schedule. Once again I was a stellar student, mastering complex problems with ease.

            The best part was that Mr. K encouraged me to think about college, something that I wanted to do, but felt I’d never have sufficient academic skills to even consider the possibility. I applied as a Math major, of all things! And, surprise of all surprises, I was accepted at every college.

            While I eventually changed my major because of a misogynistic Math Department Chair, I was always grateful for the confidence that Mr. K had given me. Under his tutelage I discovered that not only could I succeed in higher lever math, but that I could also excel in almost all academic areas.

            Mr. K changed my life. The child who was once invisible later became the teacher who stood at the front of the room, the teacher who made sure to recognize the good in all of her students.  

Opening My Eyes

When you have very little, even the smallest thing can change your life. It often doesn’t matter what it is, it’s the ownership that allows us to see ourselves in a different light.

For most of my growing up years living with my family I felt inferior to my siblings. My brother Bill, who was a little more that a year older, seemed to bask in my mother’s attention. I understood that my father didn’t often see the good in my brother, no matter how hard he tried to gain approval.

My dad was a natural athlete: my brother was not. Bill signed up for Little League. He wasn’t good enough to get on a team. My dad was so angry that he lashed out at league officials, but no matter how obnoxious my dad was, Bill didn’t get placed on a team. My dad found out that he could pick up all the boys (yes, only boys could play back then!) that had been rejected and set up practice times with them.

My dad got busy, spending night after night making calls. When he had called every boy and got enough to make a team, practices began. I was allowed to tag along. Every time a ball went wild, it was my responsibility to retrieve it. Because theses boys had terrible skills, I spent almost the entire practice time, day after day, wading through thigh-high weeds gathering all the stray balls.

 I ended up with a such a severe case of poison ivy that I couldn’t bend my legs without being in pain. It did not deter me.

After weeks of practice, my dad arranged preseason games with organized, uniformed teams. His boys did not lose every game. When they did lose, it was not by the huge margin that the other coaches expected.

My brother was not the best player nor the worst, but he had an unusual style for running the bases. He never slid, but always arrived bent over with his butt facing the crowd. People snickered. My mom and I laughed.  My dad was embarrassed. He tried to teach my brother how “normal” boys ran the bases, but it didn’t change a thing.

What was important was that my dad took a group of players that no one wanted and made them into something valuable. In fact, two of his players made it onto the all-star team at the end of the season.

About the same time doctor shows were popular on television. Every doctor appeared in the typical “doctor” shirt, a white, short-sleeved button-up the shoulder shirt.

On a shopping trip to the nearest five-and-dime, I saw a display of doctor-shirts on a rack just inside the door. To my surprise, they had one in my size. Something I did not expect due to being quite overweight. It was marked down, but still too expensive, so my mom wouldn’t buy it for me. When my mom registered my dismay, she agreed that I could earn the money to buy one.

I set to work pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, picking blackberries along the border between our house and the woods, which gave me an outbreak of poison ivy, and cleaning my brother’s room which meant picking up dirty underwear off the floor.

As the days passed, I kept my fingers crossed that the shirt would still be there.

When I finally had enough saved, on the next trip into town, I was allowed to accompany my mother. With money safely stored in a little pouch tucked in y shorts pocket, I prayed for the entire thirty-minute trip.

I was so anxious that I could hardly breathe as we opened the doors to the store and walked in. The rack was still there. The shirt in my size was still there, now marked down even more. With joy I pulled it off the rack and carried it through the store, cradled against my chest. I refused to put it in the cart no matter how much my mom insisted.

As soon as I got home, I tried on the shirt. It was perfect! It fit just right. It made me look like the television doctors. It was a tad thin. This was before I started wearing bras, so my nipples showed through.

After washing I hung the shirt in my closet and saved it for special occasions. I took it off it food was involved. When school began several weeks later it was the first thing I wore. Picture me getting out of our car and striding across the playground. See my squared shoulders and confident step. Watch me as I approach classmates, expecting glowing comments about my wonderful shirt.

Now erase all that from your mind. The shirt was so out-of-style that everyone laughed. It was an awakening to me. The shirts were on the clearance rack for a reason: no one wanted them. Add to that my humiliation when I was teased about not wearing a bra.

That was the last time I wore the shirt.

I share the two different stories for an important reason: growing up means not just physical growth. Our bodies change, yes, but so must we change our awareness of ourselves in the world.

My brother might not have been a great baseball player, but later in life he discovered a love of swimming. He enjoyed it so much that he put in a backyard pool so he could swim every day. He taught his daughters how to swim and supported them through lessons and team practices. Like Bill, they were all excellent swimmers. At one time the girls were featured on the cover of a magazine as Olympic potentials. None of them did make it on a Olympic team, but they did swim for their respective colleges.

My shirt did not win me the admiration and acceptance of my peers, but it did teach me that theme-related items have a shelf-life. As a parent I never made the mistake of dressing my kids in no-longer-popular cartoon characters or out-of-favor styled clothing. As a mother I couldn’t afford the latest styles for myself but I could sew something similar.

As a child my clothes were usually hand-me-downs that were often stained. My kids never wore stained or torn clothes. My teenage clothes were sometimes too tight or too long or made from the wrong fabrics or designs. While my kids’ clothes might have come from thrift stores, they dressed like everyone else their age.

We learn a lot of things growing up if we keep our eyes and ears open. Chasing baseballs taught me the element of the game, something I still appreciate today. Watching my dad coach taught me what it takes to teach a sport, something I carried with me when I became a soccer coach.

Listening to my teachers exposed me to the good and bad of education. I admired and respected the teachers who saw me as the awkward, insecure child that I was masking the intelligent capable student who could go on to college and excel. They showed me what good teachers do, skills that I took into my own classrooms.

Throughout my adult life I have tried to keep my eyes open. Each time I experienced something for the first time, I lodged it in my mind, sorted by what worked and what didn’t. Those things that worked, I tried to repeat; the ones that didn’t I put away.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone opened their eyes to what’s happening around them. Imagine the difference it would make in people’s lives.

Born to Shine

Imagine how different the world would be if every child, no matter how rich or poor, heard those words on a regular basis. Think about how special they would feel after their guardian tucked them in at night and spoke those words.

There might be no bullies because, if you feel worthy, you have no need to belittle others. No one would be afraid of trying new things, of being rejected, of being pushed aside.

What a beautiful place the world would be!

As a child I never felt special in any positive way. What if my mom had told me that I was born to shine? Would I have been a different child? Would my attitude toward school have been different? My grades better? When meeting people, would I have been more outgoing because that confidence sat on my shoulders?

I know that I never said those words to my children. I wish I had. I did, however, sign them up for classes and swim lessons and sports hoping that they would discover something that they could enjoy for the rest of their lives. I helped with schoolwork and met with some of their teachers. I volunteered at their schools, as a team mom in little league, as a scorekeeper in baseball and as a soccer coach and referee. I did these things because I wanted to share those experiences with them, but also because I enjoyed it.

Born to Shine. Powerful words. My children grew up to be wonderful adults. They all contribute to society in different ways, yes, but they are helping future generations shine.

If I could go back in time, instead of reading books aloud as I cradled my kids, I would tell them that they were born to shine. As I watched them struggle in sports or academics, I’d say those words and then watch the effect they had.

Even though I don’t recall a single word of praise or encouragement, I told myself that I was born to shine. Perhaps not in those exact words, but the message was the same. Often I thought I was lying to myself, but I persevered nonetheless. When I was feeling inferior to my siblings, I’d think of the things that I could do better than them.

For example, I was the better athlete at a time when girls played few sports. I picked up languages quite quickly and enjoyed learning about different places and cultures. I was an excellent math student, so good that I got a full-ride scholarship.

But I also struggled with self-esteem and self-confidence. What if my dad had told me I was born to shine? Those words would have meant more to me than a bucket of gold. I would have known that he saw something valuable in me. My self-esteem would have risen. I wold have liked myself better.

Born to shine. I wish that every parent would say those words to their kids, no matter how old. Over and over, look them in the eye and say born to shine. Pat them on the back, give them a hug, turn it into a song. Say the words weekly, daily, hour by hour.

Slowly, ever so slowly the world would change.

Born to shine. Power.