Year three began on Monday. If you want to be really technical, it’s actually year ten. I have six years of preschool, a full year of student teaching, and two years of third grade under my belt. I’m tired and slightly overwhelmed, but I don’t feel like I’m drowning. I have a sweet new third grader to thank for that feeling and so much more. Although I met this child on open house day when their family walked into my half finished classroom, it wasn’t until the same child came into my room on the first day of school that I saw an eight year old version of myself and finally figured out why I do what I do.
I was “that kid”. Despite the fact that I decided at age four that I wanted to be a teacher, I hated school. For me, being in a classroom as a learner was like living in a nightmare. A six and a half hour nightmare that reoccured every weekday from September until June. You would think that as I got older, school would get easier but that isn’t true. As I got older, the content that I was expected to learn got harder and the harder the content got, the more anxious I felt. The more I raised my hand and shared the wrong answer, the more my peers thought I was stupid. The kids were mean. So mean that I reached the point where I’d argue with my parents to stay home and if I couldn’t convince them, I’d fake sick. I would do whatever I could to not have to go to school.
Around the age of eight, I was diagnosed as multi-handicapped because it was the the only diagnosis that could provide me with all of the accommodations and support that I needed to learn. I have multiple learning disabilities, a non-verbal learning disability, depression, and anxiety. I am a struggling learner. I say am instead of was because it’s still who I am and it’s how I got here. I didn’t grow out of my disabilities, I learned to live with them. I learned that success looks different for everyone and I created it for myself.
It wasn’t until high school that I was able to form a relationship with a teacher who I grew to admire. Although I didn’t reach a point where I loved school or learning, she made me feel safe at school and that in itself was HUGE. One day during my senior year, I was eating lunch with a group of people that I thought were my friends. We were discussing our plans for after graduation when one of the girls turned to me and said, “Why are you even trying to go to college? You aren’t going anywhere in life.” I was inconsolable for days after that conversation but it was during that school year that I learned the most valuable lesson about my future. Teaching isn’t about the color coordinated supplies, fun picture books, and pretty pens. Teaching is about making a difference.
Seven years later, I completed a nine month graduate program with a 4.0 GPA. Eight years later, I completed my first year of teaching. Nine years later, I cried on my way home from the last day of didn’t want to return to the classroom. I took the summer to focus on myself (which was really just two and a half months of sleeping until ten, drinking coffee and watching Netflix…) and ultimately made the decision to give teaching one more chance.
“How is your school year going?” It’s my least favorite question because my school year is actually going REALLY well. That sounds weird, right? The beginning of the year last year was great too but then in addition to the obstacles of that came with an extremely hard class, I took on the shared responsibility of caring for a sick family member, went through two knee surgeries that left me with multiple complications, including the inability to walk on my own, and finally, trying to find time to grieve after losing my grandmother unexpectedly. Last year, things fell apart faster than I can fill a cart at Target so you can understand how the fear of that happening again has been overwhelming.
On the first day of school, a sweet child walked in my classroom. For this darling child, the first three days of school were spent asking endless questions (often the same ones over and over again), throwing papers on the floor, squirming in their seat, crying, and telling me that all of the work is too hard. I spent the first three days of school answering the same questions over and over again, picking up the papers off the floor, drying tears, and reassuring my little friend that they are in fact, a very smart and capable person. Every time I looked at this tiny human during those three days, I saw an eight year old version of myself and on the fourth day of school, I overheard the child say to a friend, “Aren’t you glad you’re in Miss Cates’ class? I am. I like school now because she makes me happy.”
That was it. That’s all it took for me to finally figure out why I’m here.
Every child deserves to have someone who believes in them. Someone who makes them feel safe and happy. Someone who makes them feel like they are capable of doing anything they want to do. I’m here because although I eventually found the teacher who made me feel like that, it is impossible to undo the damage done to a student who spends years falling through the cracks. I’m here because I don’t ever want a student to feel the way that I felt when I was a child. I’m here because I believe that teachers need to be who they needed. I’m here because teaching makes a difference and I want to be who I needed.
So, tiny human, thank you. We still have nine months left in the school year but I will never be able to teach you as much as you’ve taught me in the last four days.