This time of the year, I find myself getting nostalgic. All it takes is a walk through Target for me to remember when I was the one sifting through the bins, searching for the perfect items to complete me, and the brighter the colors, the better!
Ahhh August. While I may hate your intense heat, I have always loved the butterflies you would place in my stomach as I would anticipate the first day of school. Equipped with my cool Lisa Frank folders tucked tightly into my matching trapper keeper, I was always eager for the new school year to start.
My other classmates looked forward to summer, but I dreaded it. Instead, I was more comfortable seated in the front row of class patiently awaiting the opportunity to offer up an answer that my teacher would pose. Sitting by the pool wasn’t my happy place back then. My favorite spot was right there in the classroom.
A learning-junkie I was. I soaked up every second of every day that I got in school. The temperature swings and the lack of desks for left-handed folks like me didn’t deter my love for the place. It was where I made sense; where I was content; where I was destined to succeed.
At that age, success to me was determined by the grade on the paper. No pressure was needed from my parents to get straight A’s as I put enough on myself for all of us. Late night and early morning study sessions began at a young age, and while I realize now that my internal drive was a little too much, back then it was one thing in my life that I could 100 percent control.
This year as I joined my son in gathering the school supplies on his list, I couldn’t help but be filled with warmth as I recalled a special memory from decades earlier. I was a tiny little freckle-faced fourth-grader, and that year came with a mix of teachers and a mix of emotions. You see, I was elated to find out my homeroom teacher was the best option available, but my stomach made a home in my throat when I remembered that year that the entire grade started switching classes for various subjects.
There was a teacher in the group whose name was one I’ll never forget. But more than learning her name, she taught me more about life than my trapper keeper could ever hold. It didn’t matter if you liked the subjects she taught (math and religion); she was the one person the whole grade dreaded. Her reputation was harsh, and her grimace accompanied it well. Her room left you numb when you entered it and the wee little me was completely terrified.
I stopped raising my hand during her class for fear of making a mistake. I felt sick every time the bell would ring, and it was time to visit her room. While she never raised her voice at me or gave me the evil eye, all you need is a negative reputation to plant a seed of fear. And fearful I was.
Among the few vivid details I remember at that age is one specific week that year in fourth-grade. It was religion test time. I had studied, like I always did, but I had another test on the same date, and I had put more energy into that one versus my religion test. The moment I sat down to begin taking it, my lack of studying generated a panic that was uncontrollable.
My hands started to get sweaty, and I felt heat on my chest, which I knew meant the hives were evident. The first part of the test was fill-in with no word bank, and the moment I got to a question I didn’t know, I thought I would explode. Instead of combusting (which may have been a better option), I did the only thing I could think of. I glanced at my classmate’s paper and wrote down their answer.
For the first time in my life, I cheated. And on a RELIGION test for crying out loud. I knew God would check a mark on His Stephanie list and one day I’d pay for it. I was crushed.
This girl couldn’t keep secrets if my life depended upon it, so it didn’t take but one look at me for my mom to know something was wrong. After school she began asking me questions to get to the root of why I was off. I was able to hold back for a bit, but by the end of the night, I caved and told her everything.
I was a worry-wart at that age, and my mom knew that the weight of the worry was more punishment than any grounding could do. She didn’t say much after I told her the details except that I knew what I needed to do to make it right. The weight of a guilty conscience is heavier than any barbell I could pick up at the gym, and after a few days of carrying it around, I decided it was time to fess up.
Walking into her classroom that day was even worse than the weeks prior. I made it through class, depressed and anxious all in one. And when the bell rang, I felt like it was the sound of my walking the plank. I crept closer and closer to the teacher, and when she finally noticed me, I quietly asked if she could spare some time at the end of school for a chat.
Now, I was the student that never got in trouble. I kept quiet and could always be trusted. I excelled in every class and never caused a fuss. So, I can only imagine what my teacher was thinking. She saw me lifeless and, knowing that this conversation was important, she agreed to share some of her precious time after school for a chat with just me.
Alone. Just me and her. All day I dwelled on it. All day I was terrified, constantly holding internal conversations with myself, trying to talk myself off the ledge before I even got to it.
As the final bell rang, I was shaking while I walked into her unwelcoming room. She greeted me as she always did, barely cracking a smile. Instead of sitting behind her desk, she pulled up a chair next to the miniature table I sat at and, while looking me dead in the eyes, asked what I needed.
I took a deep breath. As I inhaled, my inner self tried to change my mind and offered to help me run as fast as I could as far as I could away from her. But in the exhale, I spoke back, knowing that no matter how far I would run, I wouldn’t ever escape myself which was worse than anything anyone could do.
So, I spilled it, telling her everything while not sparing any details. I made no excuses. Instead, I owned the one thing that I could control, me, and then offered a few solutions that I had come up with. I suggested that she fail me on that test or require that I take a different one. All I asked was that I could have the opportunity to fix what I had done – for her, for the test, for myself.
After sharing everything, airing what had weighed that little heart of mine down, I took another breath. As I did, I felt a little of the weight lift, but not knowing her response yet, my body wasn’t willing to surrender it all.
She sat there, emotionless as usual, processing what I had just said. Then, she stood up and walked away leaving me questioning her next move. My ability to breathe was choked by the new worry that was settling in. She approached her desk and reached high above it to the shelf that held her most prized possessions, the items that no kid could touch.
She grabbed a huge container and made her way back to her seat. Then she looked me in the eye, and for the first time that I could recall, her lips parted, and a wide grin painted on her face. Immediately, all fear I had ever had of this teacher drifted away with the chilled air-conditioning wind gust and I could see part of her break through her hard façade.
She opened the container and pulled out a few tootsie rolls. By now I had noticed that this was the container that she would use when someone did exceptional in class. It was still filled to the brim because her level of exception was nearly unreachable. You were lucky if you ever got one of her sweet treasures, and yet she gifted me more than my little hand could hold. As I twisted one open to enjoy, she spoke words that to this day I will never forget.
She acknowledged how hard it must have been for me to not just know I did something wrong but come up with a decision on how to make it right. She could tell all week that I wasn’t myself, and she profusely thanked me for entrusting her with my secret. Instead of issuing detention or following through with any of the reprimands I had offered up, she leaned over and gave me one of the biggest hugs I remember getting.
For days I had feared that moment. I was so terrified of her being let down by me that I never considered how proud I may make her. Instead of punishing me for what I had done, she congratulated me on my response to it. Together we celebrated that while I made a poor decision, the messages she taught in the religion class I was using in my life. I was doing exactly what Jesus would have wanted me to. And after we consumed several chocolates together, she told me to let it go; to not worry anymore; and to forgive myself as she had already forgiven me.
That day, I gained a new respect for those who opt to lead our future generations. I realized that her tough façade didn’t mean she was heartless, but rather instilled a seriousness in learning for us. She took her job seriously, and while a test was important, the lessons gleaned from her teachings were critical in life. Straight A’s wouldn’t necessarily mean that I would traverse life easily but owning up to my mistakes meant that I would always be a constant learner.
This month, many will be gifted with the butterflies I felt years ago. Some despise this feeling, while others graciously welcome it. I realize now that I was not alone in my excitement. Many students, including my son, are counting down the days, but they too are not the only ones for the teachers have just as much at stake, if not more! They are charged with teaching more than cursive (if your school even still teaches that!) and new math techniques. They are building confidence, teaching values, and instilling life principles in the lives of our littles. THEY are making a difference day in and day out.
To my fourth-grade teacher, it’s been more years than I have the energy to count since that day, but this time each year I say a silent pray thanking you for shaping me. May each of our children be blessed with a teacher like her.