Teachers Who Inspire: To Be or Not To Be

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teaching jobsIt was a typical day at Webster Middle School and another boring, ordinary class of fourth-period history had begun. We were in the back of the classroom, me and Tommy, laughing, joking and not caring about the lesson that was being taught. We were in the seventh grade -- a time when most young, black males are making the vital decision to either continue successfully with their academics or put the books aside and pursue the World of Rebellion. It was a world where girls and the labels on our clothing trumped the power of a quality education. It was a world where our adolescent attitudes outgrew our small, fragile frames. A world where we cared less about what our parents and teachers thought and more about our status among the middle-school elite.

With each day of school, every bell and passing class period, our decision to put education on the back burner was becoming more and more evident. The days leading up to this particular class period had been filled with drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and skipping entire school days to hang out at friends' houses while their parents were hard at work.

For whatever reason, we had decided to attend history class after missing the previous three or four classes. We were behind in the class and our grades were dropping. We had no intentions of learning that day, no regard for classmates or our teacher.

As the Black History video played, we laughed and cracked jokes. We pointed and disrespectfully mocked the images of blacks being chased and bitten by dogs. We giggled endlessly about the scenes of blacks being hosed down along a brick wall by firefighters. Our ignorance and contempt were at an all-time high.

Ms. Thomas sat at her desk watching us in disgust. She was never the type of teacher to openly embarrass her students in class and she hated to stop a lesson at the expense of students who were actually there to learn. She always knew the right time to handle situations in the classroom and often did it with dignity and professionalism. That moment had come for me at the end of the class period. As students filed out of the class, Ms. Thomas firmly stepped in front of me, impeding my progress. With one smooth motion, she closed the door and stood her ground.

"What in the hell is wrong with you?" she asked.

"Huh?" I responded nervously.

"You sit in the back of this room without a care in the world. You laugh and play as if nothing is important to you, just wasting away all of your talent. You skip class, hang out with thugs and think you are really doing something. All you are doing is wasting away your life. When are you going to wake up and take this life you have seriously?"

I stood there shocked. My mouth was open but no words would come out.

With her finger pointing adamantly in every direction, she continued. "You need to get your act together and take this class more seriously. More importantly, you need to rethink the way you are living your life and what direction you want to go in."

"I know what direction I'm going in," I attempted to regain my pride and adolescent swagger.

"You think you are tough but you are weak. So weak that you have to follow in others' footsteps and can't walk your own path. You are a follower -- a weak follower."

"I ain't weak."

"Watch your mouth and mind who you are talkin' to. I am not one of your friends. You will respect me."

I didn't respond.

"You sit here laughing at the very people who have sacrificed so much for you to simply be here. Your ancestors, your people who have given so much for you and all you can do is cheat yourself. Your behavior is intolerable, shameful and inadequate."

With a vocabulary too limited to understand her point, I remained silent, embarrassed and ashamed.

"I'm not going to stand in your way. If this is what you want -- what you truly want for yourself -- who am I to stand in your way? If this is your destiny, then go after it."

She opened the door that led to the now quiet hallway. "Go out there and go after your destiny, the life you truly want and deserve. But if you want to continue to come into this class and act ignorant, then don't bother returning ... ever."

I walked out the room empty and powerless. Ms. Thomas had pierced my adolescent armor and bruised my already brittle, youthful ego. With each step, a piece of that armor began to fall to the ground and ironically, I began to feel relieved, more powerful and confident. Rather than retreat to the next meeting place in the hallway with Tommy and the other skip-outs, I took a path I hadn't ventured on in a week -- a path that led to the door of my fifth-period class ...

From that day on, I began to understand and appreciate what Ms. Thomas was trying to say on that unforgettable day nearly 25 years ago. That afternoon, she challenged me to truly be me or not exist at all.

She pushed me to reconsider the dangerous steps I was taking at that time and to visualize something more authentic. Now, as a 36-year-old eighth-grade history teacher, I am having similar conversations and exchanges with 13- and 14-year-olds. I am face-to-face with young men and women who are looking for guidance, motivation, understanding and support.

I never saw Ms. Thomas again after I completed my career at Webster Middle School. I remember giving her a hug at our eighth-grade completion ceremony and then time took over. I do not know whether or not she is still teaching or even if she is still alive.

What I will always remember; however, is the impact she had on my life and how that short conversation enabled me to reshape my life and reconsider the gifts I possessed and how I could use them to effectively transform the lives of others. Because of her inspiring actions, I decided to become a teacher. I am forever grateful for her stern, yet caring disciplinary approach as well as her willingness to see behind the empty facade I had created.

As I stand outside my classroom door and greet my own students each morning with a fist pound, I keep in mind that each of them is wearing protective armor hiding their "true selves." It is my obligation and duty to bring about the best in all of them. When students enter the class and I say, "Good morning," I can always sense the spirit of Ms. Thomas standing behind me, supporting me on this journey.

Every now and then I turn around and acknowledge her and all she has done for me with a smile and simple, "Thank You."

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