I believe in the power of the individual.
Despite everything I have been told, I am still convinced that the individual still possesses the ability to change what seems to be an inexorable march of destiny.
I first moved to America from China at the age of five. I was knew absolutely nothing of English, having never even heard it before in my native land. Thus, without a means of effective communication, I was the quiet, Foreign kid at school, whom everyone ignored.
My first few weeks at school were quite disastrous. Because I didn’t understand the teacher’s instructions for everyone to bring eggs to paint for the annual Easter Egg Hunt, I was forced to hunt for wooden substitute eggs instead. Looking back now, I’m sure the teacher wanted to make sure that I wasn’t left out, yet I cannot shake those feelings of horror and embarrassment of that past memory.
My time spent at school took a better turn when I thankfully moved to another school. While the teachers were quite baffled at what to do with a student who fell asleep during class because of the time-zone difference and who didn’t pay attention to instructions because she couldn’t understand them, none of this mattered to Ms. Modisette, my English as a Second Language teacher.
Ms. Modisette was quite the talented soul. Our class was the microcosm of the world: Spanish, Indian, Japanese, and Portuguese students. I however, was the only Chinese student. Thus, even though we were all united somewhat under the banner of “non-English speakers,” I still was isolated in this class that was meant to help me fit in.
What I remember the most of Ms. Modisette, though, was the fact that she chose to ignore this. She treated me as a person, not as just merely another ESL student. Even as a first grader, I felt a profound sense of acceptance from her—I felt lucky to be under the guidance of a person who wanted truly to help me learn the English language and gain the confidence to venture boldly into the world.
I am still in awe of how Ms. Modisette could have encouraged me to come out of my scared, isolated shell without my uttering a single word. She knew to hand me flashcards with pictures, only smiling as I struggled to pronounce and remember the English word. While the other teachers in the school spoke of holding me back a grade, Ms. Modisette praised me for every word that I managed to learn and use on my own.
After nearly two years with her, I was crestfallen one day when she told my parents that I was ready to test out of the ESL class. I now had enough English at my disposal to fend for myself in a world that had once rejected me for my lack of ability. Albeit reluctantly, I had to accept that Ms. Modisette would be with me no longer.
I never did see Ms. Modisette again. Shortly thereafter, I moved again to yet another elementary school. Now, I am no longer struggling with English. Ms. Modisette, in those first crucial moments of my new journey, had made a lasting impact on my ability to write and read. I’m sure, if I had the chance to talk to her again, that she would be glad to know that I won a national writing contest recently, or that I am completely in love with English class. Even without these successes, I still would assert that she has and continues to influence my life and is the constant reminder of why I started writing in the first place.
For her, the “singular” individual to make a difference, she didn’t need to donate millions of dollars, cure diseases, or write up a treaty. Though those impacts and the efforts to solve such enormous problems are certainly notable, what she has done for me seems to overshadow anything else.
It doesn’t matter to me that Ms. Modisette can never read what I wrote—she doesn’t need to. She wrote the first words, the first sentence—she started the first chapter and story. It is up to me to finish it, but I do not feel burdened in any way. I can only feel her cheering me on once more. She taught me more than just a language—she taught me to embrace the power of an individual.
And in this, I truly believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.