Thanksgiving: I owe my happiness to my teachers

I teach because I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to public schools, mostly to my teachers. As Thanksgiving approaches, I must give thanks to the educators who impacted my life in a positive manner.

Throughout the madness, there were educators who embraced me, encouraged me, challenged me, and never let me use my experiences as excuses to fail. 

To say educators saved my life may be understating their impact. For one to fully understand what they meant to me, I must discuss some uncomfortable aspects of my childhood. My mother was severely mentally ill, drug and alcohol addicted. My father was an alcoholic. My older brother and I bounced back and forth between our parents for some time, but the situations were the same – drugs, violence, and abuse. I couldn’t have been older than 7 when my mother disappeared and no older than 8 when my father dropped my brother and I off at our grandparents, for the last time. Living with the grandparents brought some stability, but mental illness plagued my grandmother as well, so the abuse followed. 

Throughout the madness, there were educators who embraced me, encouraged me, challenged me, and never let me use my experiences as excuses to fail. 

I am sad I do not remember the office staff, counselors, or administrators’ names who helped me while attending Cochran Elementary School in Louisville. At the time, the school sat on Second and Hill streets, in what is today Youth Performing Arts School’s annex building. When my mother dropped me off at 8 a.m. because she wanted to get high, or who knows what, despite the fact I attended afternoon kindergarten, the staff welcomed me, fed me, read with me, and never turned away. In first grade, Mr. Terrell, gave every child a bag of toys and clothes before Christmas. He did this annually for most of his career. That year, we watched the Challenger Space Shuttle explode on television. Mr. Terrell comforted us. He knew my older brother, who was always in trouble, and yet never assummed anything about me, always pushing me to do better.

As a second and third-grader, I attended Lowell Elementary, which was demolished to make room for airport expansion. It was there I began to come out of my shell a bit, thanks in large part to teachers who nurtured my love for art and storytelling. 

Mrs. Georgia Clay, I’ll never forget that name, hugged me everyday until my eyes popped out of my head. She told me I was a writer. She told me I was an artist. She didn’t speak in what ifs, gonna-be’s, or some days. We were already all the hopes and dreams we possessed.

The original Brandeis Elementary building was a pivotal place in my life, where teachers brought out the best in me and a true love for learning.

But it was Brandeis Elementary, which set me on fire. I attended the old building, on West 26th Street, for fourth and fifth grade. Mrs. Georgia Clay, I’ll never forget that name, hugged me everyday until my eyes popped out of my head. She told me I was a writer. She told me I was an artist. She didn’t speak in what ifs, gonna-be’s, or some days. We were already all the hopes and dreams we possessed.

Mrs. Clay retired mid-year. I cried alone in the library. However, Mrs. Scrubb picked up where she left off, and Mrs. Clay came back regularly, to make sure we didn’t forget her, or that we knew that she didn’t forget us.

There were so many other adults in that building who went above and beyond. I cannot remember all the names, but one teacher took a group of us to the side who loved to draw cartoons and said, “wanna make a cartoon.” Yeah we did. So he made that happen and we made a cartoon about our school, drawing thousands of frames until we were finished. I told him I wanted to be a reporter some day, so he created a school newspaper, and we got to work publishing it regularly. 

In fifth grade, it was Mrs. Crenshaw and Mrs. Longstreet, who challenged me with long math problems, got an entire class to cry while reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and allowed our creativity to bloom. 

In 2007, nearly 20 years after leaving Brandies, I sat down for my screening interview with Jefferson County Public Schools. Across from me was my old principal from Brandies. She recognized me. We talked about the old school and I thank her and all of the staff who helped me so much, and then I told her I wanted to teach in the West End, preferably at Western Middle School. I lived in Portland for a brief time as a child and figured that was a good place to give back. Maybe I was the only one asking to teach at Western, or maybe it was reminiscing on old times, but she set up my interview that day and I was hired the next.

I discovered a love for current issues and history at Highland Middle School.

I could go on and on, but less is more. The further I went in schooling, support from my teachers and coaches was always present, from my sixth-grade language arts teacher Mr. Pierce, who always made himself available, to my eighth-grade social studies teacher Mr. Matter, who taught me history matters, pun intended, to my high school coaches, coach Doggendorf, coach Taylor coach Washington, who instilled discipline and work ethic, to college.

Coaches at Seneca High School helped develop my strong character and the man I am today.

At Bellarmine University, Dr. Gail Henson, Dr. Ruth Wagoner, and Dr. Fred Rhodes all intervened at vital moments. Henson and Wagoner were surrogate mothers, especially following the death of my grandmother freshman year and grandfather junior year. Without family, I wondered if I could afford to graduate on time, and with their urging, Dr. Rhodes stepped in. I still remember what he said when I told him I didn’t know if I could swing the tuition without working, meaning I’d have to maybe step away from cross country and track – “Don’t worry about it.” I never had to, because he took care of it.

I am blessed. I didn’t have the family most desired, but I had a constant family of educators who were there for me every step of the way, who presented me with the opportunity to succeed.

I am blessed. I didn’t have the family most desired, but I had a constant family of educators who were there for me every step of the way, who presented me with the opportunity to succeed. I am truly thankful to all of them. I am truly grateful. 

Today, I am married to an amazing woman, have two awesome kids, I’ve pursued both careers I wanted while in school – teaching and journalism, I’ve started a small business, and who knows what’s next. But most of all, the man I am today was nurtured and allowed to blossom due in large part to the educators who appeared at key moments of my childhood. That’s the power of public education, the power of educators.