When I was sixteen, I had an amazing Honors American literature teacher. He taught me how to analyze, how to synthesize, how to see the historical significance of a piece of literature, and then, critically observe the evolution of man and society. I loved his class so much that I strove to be a top student. Often, when working on an essay or a research paper, I would make appointments to meet with him so that I could get some feedback about my writing.
At one such appointment in the spring of my junior year, he happened to say to me, “You love my class so much, you should think about becoming a teacher someday. Your enthusiasm would inspire people.”
I smiled, but of course, I thought his notion ludicrous. I attended a prestigious all girls high school on the westside of Cleveland so that I could join the ranks of corporate America and make money. Teachers were underpaid and under appreciated. I wanted more for myself.
At eighteen, right before I left for college, I was at a family gathering discussing my interest in becoming an English major. “What will you do with that?” someone asked.
“I’m unsure, but it is a liberal arts major,” I said. “Doors will open when the time comes, I am sure of it.”
A few days later over dinner, my dad brought up the conversation again. “I heard what you said about being an English major. Instead of waiting for an opportunity to arise, why don’t you chase an opportunity?”
“What?” I asked. My father knew how passionate I felt about wanting to write someday, I thought he had some insight about turning my love for English into a career in creative writing.
“You should consider becoming a teacher. You have the personality for it. You love English, and you would make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Again, I wanted nothing to do with it. Didn’t my father know the old adage, Those who can do. Those who can’t teach? I perceived most of my teachers as mousey introverts whose lives revolved around their students. I wanted adventure, travel, and a 9-5 corporate job. I didn’t want to deal with hormonal teenagers who felt the world revolved around themselves, which of course, I had first-hand knowledge, being a hormonal teenager who believed the world revolved around me. (Even at eighteen, I was brutally aware of my short-comings.)
When I was 23 and trying to manipulate my way through finishing my undergraduate degree, I had this amazing creative writing teacher at Baldwin-Wallace. I took every class he taught, and when I ran out of classes to take, I convinced him to let me do an independent study with him as well. In one of our independent study meetings while discussing the novella I was writing, he said to me, “What are your plans after graduation? What will you do in life with an English degree?”
His questions made me tense. I was very close to “real life” and to be frankly honest, I had no idea what I was going to actually do in life. I wanted to be a novelist, but of course, I did not know how to make this happen. (I still don’t.) The idea of being close to graduation and being questioned about my career path by a man I revered scared me.
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “I do know I want to do something with my degree, however.”
“You should think about becoming a teacher,” he said. “Your passion is fetching, and I am sure you can captivate an audience. I think you’d be good at it.”
“I don’t think it’s the career for me,” I told him, disappointed that he did not say something about my abilities and how I should write for The New Yorker. I wanted so much more for myself than to be a teacher.
Nonetheless, it stayed with me that three men I respected, three men I admired, without provocation, each told me I should choose I career I was dead against. It made me question myself. Did they know something I didn’t? Did they see me differently than I saw myself?
It didn’t matter, I finished my undergraduate degree without taking education classes. I finished my degree, and I focused on a career that had nothing to do with English– managing my parents’ restaurant. For two years, I worked. For two years, I helped to improve business. In those two years, I established relationships with my now lifelong friends. In those two years, I did not discuss literature or write stories or create poems. As much as I loved my life, I felt a void within it as well.
In March of 1996, I went to lunch with a friend of mine who completed a one year Masters of Education program at John Carroll. She was in her first year of teaching, and I was intrigued about what made her go back to school. She explained feeling like she was not making a difference in anyone’s life. She then explained how magical the classroom environment was for her. She talked about watching kids’ faces light up when they realized what she was trying to teach them. She discussed how fun it was to giggle with seventeen-year old kids. She told me how exhilarated she felt when she graded a class set of quizzes and everyone passed.
In the matter of an hour-and-a-half lunch, something changed. My stomach was in knots; my ears were ringing. My body was physically reacting to the truth. They were right– all three of them– they saw in me what I did not see in myself. At 27, the hole in my stomach told me I had missed out on an opportunity. I had missed my calling.
As with life, I was presented with a second chance. Within two days of lunch with my friend, I had contacted the university to gain an understanding as to what steps I needed to follow to get admitted for the start of the semester, which started in June of that year. I told my then boyfriend, Tom, I would be quitting my job and taking out a student loan. I broke the news to my parents that I would be quitting the family business to pursue a career as a teacher.
Tom didn’t care; he knew he wanted me to be happy, especially since he was planning on asking me to marry him a few months later. My parents were not upset, either. In fact, my father’s exact response was, “It’s about time.”
A year-and-a-half later, I finished my degree and landed the job I am still in today. I became a teacher to make an impact on young lives.
This evening, I met a 2004 graduate after work. He is on his way back to Mumbai tomorrow for his second year in the William J. Clinton Fellowship program in India. I wanted to hear about his time abroad, his life since graduating Berkeley, and the impact he is having on lives. As much as he loves what he is often discouraged by the snail’s pace in his progress.
In the midst of this conversation, he said to me, “You know how it is. You probably never thought you were making a difference with us. Sometimes you can’t see the machine in motion, it moves so slow. Yet, I have to hope I am making some kind of difference and affecting someone in some kind of positive way, like you did with me.”
I was humbled. As a teacher, it is often hard to see the big picture. It is hard to think that the day-in and day-out matters. I taught this young man his sophomore year in 2002, and for whatever reason, I made an impact on him. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to have taught him. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to have taught for the past fifteen years. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of students’ lives. I am humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to hear of the impact I made on this young man. I may not impact many students, but having made a difference in any life is an amazing accomplishment to me.