On a cold January day in 1976, a baby girl was born six weeks early. I weighed a whopping four pounds. No one expected me to live, but I did. At twenty two months, I was struggling to meet milestones. No one expected me to walk, but I did. At seven years old, no one expected me to excel academically, but I did. At nine years old, when my parents died tragically, no one expected me to carry on, but I did. At eighteen, no one expected that I could achieve class valedictorian, but I did. At twenty one, an eating disorder nearly got the better of me. No one believed I could get well, but I did. At twenty-four, no one expected me to marry someone of quality, but I did. At twenty five, I had my first child. No one expected me to graduate college and have a teaching career, but I did.
What does all of this have to do with teaching? All of the previous information has everything to do with education. My life experience prepared me to be a teacher. This profession has given me the opportunity to honor what is possible. Growing up, raised by grandparents, I was never sure of myself. My parents were gone, my sister had gone away to college, and although my mother’s parents loved me, they did not readily display affection. I felt so lonely. Although I had friends, I never felt valued. I felt as if I weren’t the pretty girl, or the thin one, or the popular one. I questioned everything about myself during those middle school years. Looking back, I now realize that some of those feelings were merely “growing pains,” but the only thing I knew for sure on a gut level was that I was smart.
During this time, I was quite fortunate to have contact with some teachers who lit a fire in me and quietly fanned the flames of my curiosity. They saw something in me that I could not fully acknowledge in myself: the possibility of a better life. To the seventh grade science teacher who allowed me make the Bohr model of an atom completely of candy, the Algebra I teacher who forced me to justify everything, the senior English teacher who demonstrated that the written word can be a powerful tool for change – to each of these talented people I will forever owe a debt of immeasurable gratitude.
Working in an alternative education setting may seem less than ideal to some. To be honest, when I was offered the job, I was a bit hesitant. While I was thrilled at the prospect of a full time teaching position, I questioned whether I could be effective in such a capacity. I was young, newly married, with an infant. We were struggling financially, but alternative school on any given day is not for the faint of heart. Teaching is not easy. Very good teachers are aware that thorough preparation merely creates the illusion that the act of teaching is easy. To be an effective instructor, one must have a willingness to work hard, flexibility, and an open heart. I pondered whether I had the skills to reach the youth destined to cross my classroom’s threshold. I made a decision to accept the position and “bloom where I was planted.”
Early in my career, I would describe myself as very efficient. Quite simply, I got the job done. I did it rather cleanly. In the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” Over the years, I have come to realize that my purpose in this profession is not merely to ensure things run smoothly. My purpose is much greater. My purpose in this career is to restore hope where there had previously been none.
On a day early into this new teaching assignment, I was at the board explaining the difference between a noun and a pronoun. Instead of falling gracefully back the convenience of my rolling chair; I missed the chair completely, falling onto the floor – hard. The color of my face, the color of the sky at sunset, surely gave away my poker face of professionalism I’d been working so diligently to perfect. I had been found out! I just knew these kids, some who’d already been in scrapes with the law, would be ready to pounce on the slightest weakness. As I peeled myself from the floor, two students rushed to my aid, while the others sat in complete silence. I heard gasps of concern echo from the desks before me; not the mocking jeers I had so readily expected. I learned something invaluable that day. I honestly thank God that I realized it so early on in my career. The lesson is this: Don’t judge a book merely by its cover. I learned in a very tangible way, that day, fifteen Augusts ago, the virtue that connects us all is the simple need to feel accepted and understood. Just as I hadn’t wanted to be vulnerable and to appear in control, these children, looking at me with concern on their faces, had displayed more empathy in that moment than most adults I had known up to that point. I still reflect upon that day occasionally. It is my belief those children, well into adulthood by now, had experienced the pain of ridicule in their own lives. While each of them could have heaped their negative emotions onto me, they did not. Instead those forgotten, misunderstood, crew of kids each had chosen to show me compassion,
That class had gotten a glimpse of my humanity, and in return, I realized that in allowing my own imperfections to be seen, the seeds of trust began to grow. I believe it is the wish of all humanity to be seen, really seen for who we are, and accepted flaws and all. Without this basis of trust, I would be unable to teach anyone anything. Without the smallest measure of trust between teacher and pupil, or anyone for that matter, the sound of my voice might be tolerated, but the idea that anything I have to say carries weight or value could not even be considered. I do not want my students to be like me. I want them to be something better than I can ever have imagined. I want them all to be their best selves. I strive to give them hope, and all the tools that come with hope, so they each may consider avenues of what is possible.
This career of mine is more than a job. It has become interwoven into the very fabric of who I am. Teaching is my passion, just as writing and motherhood are passions. Some days are harder than others. There are days I feel as if I am attempting to empty the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon. I have seen children come to school, not for the education, but the two hot meals a day and central heating. Nevertheless, their bellies are full, they are comfortable, and the prerequisites for learning have been met. As teachers everywhere can attest to having done at one time or another, I have purchased supplies, shoes, and lunches for kids I knew needed them. I have pulled coats from my closets at home so a child in my class is warm. Year after year, I am reminded of all the little things I have taken for granted.
This teaching job has redefined my definition of success. It has made me more accepting of differences and more aware to our many similarities. My sincerest hope is that every student I meet remembers me for my best day, and not my worst. After all, we are all only human.
Most assuredly, I was hired to teach academics. English, history, and housekeeping tasks are a daily occurrence in my classroom, but somewhere between lunch and bus duty, I strive to demonstrate that with perseverance and a strong work ethic, anything is possible. Different choices are possible. I tell my students, “Change is not easy; if the right thing were easy, everyone would be doing the right thing.” I have not always made good choices; none of us is perfect, but it has been in my darkest hours that I have learned the greatest lessons. I have tremendous gratitude to my Lord, who made so many things possible in my life. My life has exceeded all expectations – literally. For that reason, I endeavor to be a steward of the tremendous gifts with which I have been entrusted. I am very humbled and fortunate to be able to call myself a teacher.
Read more of Miranda’s work.