As a child I loved school; the playground, my friends, the little yellow cartons of milk–all of it. My parents believed that a good education was the best gift they could ever give me and worked hard to do so. My mom, a kindergarten teacher, found the perfect school for me to attend and my father, a salesman, schooled me in classic rock on our 45 minute drive to it each morning. The small size of my school allowed for a close relationship with my teachers which I treasured.
As I started 4th grade things changed. My dad was in and out of hospitals; hooked up to IV’s and machines, in a wheelchair with a halo on his head. All of the equipment terrified me, but my mom showed me how to decorate the bars of his halo with Hanukkah lights and he was still Dad. My parents were always truthful with me about what was happening, but school was a different story. My teachers knew what was going on, but never said a word to me about it, as though they were saying “school should be her happy place, let’s keep the sadness out.” But you can’t keep the sadness out when it’s part of a child’s daily life.
April of my 5th grade year my father died unexpectedly. When I went back to school no one said a word to me and I wanted so badly to talk. I remember wishing I could tell my teachers what I was feeling, but stopping myself because I worried that I’d make them sad too. If one teacher had given me permission to cry, or if one classmate had understood the tightness in my throat, I think I would have been able to let it out and then move onto the schoolwork at hand. As it was, I just sat in class wondering how everyone else managed to be so happy. I learned then that school was where you were free to express your feelings… unless your feelings were sad, could upset others, or make them uncomfortable.
Life went on for my mother and me and, though it was never easy, it was ours and we had each other. The day before I started 8th grade we moved to South Carolina. After a year in a local private school there that just didn’t fit for me, my mom and step-father reluctantly put me in public school where they feared that, instead of being “Jillian: an individual”, I would be just one more in a sea of faces struggling to stay afloat. They were right; high school was a different world which I found restricting, impersonal and lonely.
Christmas of my senior year my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My step-dad was a wreck, and I knew I couldn’t handle things alone, so I decided to tell one of my teachers what was happening. When I had started Leslie’s English class the previous August I had hated it; had hated her. But Leslie must have seen something in me that she thought was worth the hassle and she refused to give up. I had resisted, but over time I began to trust her. So that first day back, with too many thoughts swirling around in my head, I told her everything; what was happening to Mom, how I was scared and numb and confused, but knew I couldn’t let it show because I needed to be strong for her. Leslie didn’t pity me, didn’t treat me differently than she did anyone else, she just made sure that I knew she was there to talk to at any time. I didn’t take her up on her offer, but just knowing that someone was there and that she knew what I was going through made it easier to breathe.
Early that February Mom died. When I started back to school it was as if I was back in elementary school: people avoided my eyes, spoke only of cheerful things, and never let the conversation lull for fear that I might bring up the exact topics they were so carefully tip-toeing around. Everyone but Leslie, that is. Leslie looked me square in the eye and hugged me, then just sat there and rubbed my back as I cried for the first time. She ended class early every day that week and just talked to me. Whenever I had “bad-dead-mom-days”, Leslie could tell and always offered to talk. Even after I graduated; during my first semester of college she called or e-mailed at least once a week to make sure I was okay. Leslie taught me the difference between what it means to teach, and what it means to be A Teacher.
I’m currently a junior at a small, liberal arts college in Asheville, NC. Predictably, I’m an Education major and the classes that most interest me are those that focus on the student as an individual rather than as a learning receptacle. Some say that I’m following in my mothers’ footsteps but I think I’m leaving my own. My life has led me to all kinds of experiences with all kinds of teachers, and I’ve been given the gift to decide who I want to be. My goal in life is to be happy, and if I can do for one student what Leslie did for me, I know that I will be.
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