On Friday, I was reading an excellent book called, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Mayes (<– affiliate link). I didn’t want to put it down because the characters just stuck in my mind whenever I was unable to continue reading. It is about a group of women in Depression Era America, who become librarians who ride packhorses to bring books to rural people in the Kentucky Hills. Some people in those hills had never left their property and would not have seen a book other than a Bible. Others had no idea how to read. Thanks to those women who rode their horses all day around the rural hills, they were able to explore new worlds via books.
It brought back a memory of my own education. I grew up in Portland, Oregon so it certainly isn’t rural by any means, but sometimes I felt like books were lifelines to different worlds too. You see, schooling was not very important in my family. My father didn’t graduate high school, my mother barely graduated high school and took a few accounting courses for her job, but my brothers just barely managed to scrape by with a diploma thanks to a boot camp program they attended in central Oregon. So I was the only one in, not only my immediate family but my ENTIRE extended family, to this day, who has graduated from university. I had not even heard of graduate school until I was almost done with my freshman year of university!
Sometimes I try to pinpoint how I ended up as a teacher and I always thought it had to do with leading summer camps with Camp Adventure or living with my best friend who was in school to be a teacher in while I was at U of O. But, after reading this book, I remembered my first week of sixth-grade middle school and I think that was probably a profound moment as well.
My family did not help me apply to any of the magnet schools or fancy charter schools that were beginning to pop up around Portland. Nope. I just went to the school a few blocks up the street from where I grew up (it has since been torn down thanks to Asbestos, I heard). We filled out some paperwork and they plopped me into your run of the mill urban classroom. I don’t remember the name of my homeroom teacher or even how long I was in his classroom, but I do think I owe him a debt of gratitude, so thank you, Sir.
I vaguely remember my first day of middle school and feeling very lost. I didn’t know anybody except for a boy named Lance who had attended fifth grade with me. I remember it being loud in the homeroom class and that none of the kids wanted to listen to the teacher. So I chose a desk close to the front of the class so I could hear him over the chatting of the others. He could have just continued teaching as usual, but when he noticed that I would quickly finish the work he assigned and then ask for more, he decided I needed to be challenged.
He told my mother about the science and math program at my school. I remember that I was not excited about it because those were my two least favorite subjects. But when that teacher told me that I could challenge myself or sit on the side of the room doing worksheets for the next three years, I decided to apply for the program.
The program wasn’t something miraculous with superstar teachers, but suddenly I was surrounded by kids who actually wanted to learn. The teachers seemed the same and there were certainly more science and harder math classes and there were still kids who misbehaved. But, now those kids were ones like myself, who would finish their work quickly and instead of reading a book quietly, would start chatting. Suddenly, the cool thing to do was to have your work done and to have the highest score.
It was a small change, but it was one that colored the way I spent the rest of my time in school. Instead of staying in the general classes, I would look for honors classes. Instead of doing what my family did and just scrape by through high school I read books and looked for answers on my own. Instead of giving up when my parents stopped helping me with my homework in elementary school I learned how to ask for help. So thank you, former middle school teachers, at Whitaker Middle School.
I did not even consider going to college until I was in high school and I read an article in some teen magazine about things called scholarships and student loans (I wish the article had mentioned something about budgeting and working toward financial independence but oh well). Thankfully my teachers and guidance counselor in high school helped me with those applications too. I managed to with a Ford Family Foundation Scholarship that paid for 90% of “unmet need” so I could attend the University of Oregon, so thank you to Ford Family too.
The lesson here is to be thankful for books, libraries, magazines, and great scholarship programs. But most of all, be sure to thank your teachers when they try to make you do something that is a little bit hard and might not sound that fun.
Thank you to all of my former teachers from my elementary, middle, high school, U of O, Lewis & Clark, and Framingham! I wouldn’t be finishing my ninth year as an educator if it hadn’t been for you all.
I would love to know: Do you ever think of those pivotal moments that made you who you are today? Do you have a great teacher story to share? Did you take a path completely different from others in your family?