For most of my life, I aspired to be a teacher or a nurse. I never went through a phase where I wanted to be an astronaut or President or anything else. I teetered between teacher and nurse throughout my academic career and came to a final decision at the young age of 16. One of my favorite high school teachers inspired me. But not in the way you might imagine.
Teachers, please pay attention to my message. You’ve heard it before; you know all about the generations of students whose lives you will impact. I want to share my experience as another reminder of the power you have. Let me tell you about how one teacher altered the course of my life with a single statement.
I never struggled in school until 8th grade Algebra. My grades up to that point were very straightforward, easily earned As. The math struggle that began in 8th grade would be the start of years of self-esteem issues, many of which I still battle today. I fought through Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, and Trig to the point where my once straight-A self was celebrating Cs. I would go into my junior year of high school struggling to balance equations in Chemistry and trying to understand how to figure out when the two trains would collide in Physics. My parents paid for hours and hours of before school tutoring and supported afternoon study sessions with successful classmates — all this for Cs.
One day, approaching my final exam, I tearfully met with a teacher to review mistakes I’d made on a test. Going into my final, I was walking the tightrope between a C and a D. I had to pass the final to pass the course. My supportive teacher, perhaps in an effort to change the subject and ease my anxiety, asked me about my college plans. When I mentioned wanting to go to school to become a teacher or a nurse, that teacher responded, “Oh, definitely be a teacher. You’re not a math and science person, so nursing school will be a struggle.” I loved and trusted this teacher, so in my high school mind, their words made complete sense. I know they weren’t trying to discourage me or hurt me, and I also knew I’d be a great teacher. That was the day, at 16 years old, that I determined what I would do with the rest of my life.
I went on to become a well-loved high school teacher of English, Social Studies, and Spanish. I loved teaching! However, there was always a little voice in my head nagging, “What if I’d gone to nursing school?” It wasn’t until I was 30 years old, 14 years after that conversation with my high school teacher, that I listened to my own voice. I started slowly, taking one class at a time at a community college, just to see if my brain could think math and science. The pre-requisite courses went well. I also suspected that at 30 years old, I might have developed the study skills necessary for nursing school.
I applied to nursing school, and to my shock and horror, was accepted to a rigorous program. I’d known applicants far more qualified than I who were waitlisted. I’m not sure how I pulled it off, but next thing I knew, I was officially leaving education to pursue nursing. With the exception of two courses and a few dosage calculation exams, I excelled. Still, regardless of how much I’d prepared or how hard I’d worked, I was always surprised when I earned a good grade on a test. I wasn’t able to give myself credit, to say, “Of course, I got an A. I’m intelligent, and I worked hard.” It was instead, “Whew, we pulled that off. Fingers crossed for the next one.”
I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful teachers. I know that particular one from high school has no idea the impact of their words. I know they meant well. I know it wasn’t personal. I still respect this educator as a mentor and friend. Plus, my life turned out great. I got to experience and fall in love with both teaching and nursing. Still, teachers, with great power comes great responsibility. I sincerely believe the vast majority of teachers are good-hearted with a passion for molding the lives young people. Teachers, as you enter another school year this week, I want you to consider that passion you have for molding lives. Please use care in your words and actions. Although it all worked out, it took me 14 years to undo what was done to me in 4 seconds.