That One Teacher - midlife intermission sabbatical

That one teacher…

Here in the South, August is back to school time.

For my Northern friends that sounds all wrong because your last day of school was sometime in mid to late June but around here the school doors are locked before Memorial Day so we have used up our summertime allotment by early in the eighth month of the year. It is interesting too because I am pretty sure the school board has some secret almanac to predict the hottest, most humid day of the year and that’s how they pick the first day of school. This year for my kids, it all begins next week and it will very likely be a scorcher.

As we send off our oldest for her last year in high school, the second one to the blessed status of one notch above being a freshman, and the youngest to do hard time – I mean middle school – I wonder what will the year bring? There will be new subjects and new challenges and new teachers to guide them along the way. And I hope they will all be good forces in their lives that bring them closer to a love of learning and a broader view of the world and unbreakable internal confidence. In the juggernaut of education, there are many pinnacle moments for a child and each year brings a new opportunity for stagnation, status quo, or elevation. And I have no greater admiration than for the teachers currently busying their classrooms for a year of discovery and laughter and exploration.

I was blessed with many great teachers and my memory is crowded with their words and tender guidance…

I remember being in daycare, maybe 3 or 4 years old, running down the sidewalk from the playground to the bathroom because I HAD TO GO BAD. I remember not making it and hiding in that stall crying and ashamed. My sweet teacher came looking for me and as I searched her face for any sign of inconvenience, she acted like it was the most normal event (and perhaps it was but I wasn’t privy to the accidents of other kids) and that the act of cleaning me up was the highlight of her day and she really didn’t know why I was worried and it was not an unpleasant chore for her at all. She made sure I felt unashamed – it was just an accident and accidents happen, even to the most responsible little girls.

I remember being in the third grade at Eakin Elementary and how Mrs. Olson treated my best friend Grace. Being the only deaf child in our class was hard for Grace and Mrs. Olson had to teach differently to make sure Grace could see her face. Being an expert lip reader, Grace could learn just as well as the rest of us as long as she could see our teacher’s face. Imagine how hard it would be to always face forward as a teacher…

That expert lip reading also meant that Grace understood when she was the butt of some insensitive kid’s joke. Mrs. Olson had an uncanny radar for detecting this type of behavior and she made sure Grace’s spirit was not crushed at the tender age of eight years old. Life is hard enough for someone without the benefit of hearing – no need to let the kids aggravate that fact. Mrs. Olson taught me that small alterations can make anyone feel included and that we can’t tolerate any attempts to undo that fact.

I remember being in the sixth grade and Mr. Fitz picking me up to run me down to the nurse’s office. I had developed a massive growth on my thyroid that year and it was pushing on my windpipe. This caused me to feel like I couldn’t breath and when I freaked out, I would hyperventilate. He never flustered or let his smile leave his face. Every single time, he would scoop me up and tell me it would be just fine. And it was.

I remember my freshman year at Fairview High and the new biology teacher, Mrs. Hemmerly. She was fresh out of college and I thought she was the most beautiful and interesting person I’d ever met. She felt like the older sister I’d always wanted and I listened to her advice like she was reading from the bible. My favorite truism from her was this: ‘When people walk behind you and your chosen man, don’t let your backside be wider than his’. Advice I’ve faithfully followed and even with my Midlife 15 (is that a thing?), I still pass the test. I like a broad man…

In all these flashes of moments and feelings, there is one that changed how I saw myself…

Can we all agree that the middle school years are challenging for most kids? The girl whose body grows so fast her knees hurt and she stumbles over her own flipper sized feet? The boy who only wants to be cool and a trend-setter but he’s not really sure yet what cool is or what will be trendy in seventh grade so he tries on lots of different versions to see what fits? And my personal favorite, the kid who attempts to be invisible while trying to figure out who she is meant to become. That last one – that was me.

My town was on the lower economic end of our county and while the school system was great and well-funded, the level of stability in each individual child’s household varied from dire to well-off. My house was on the other side of dire but we couldn’t even consider socializing with the well-to-dos. We had a roof overhead and at that point, consistent food on the table (paid for completely without assistance). By some of my classmate’s standards, that was rich. But I also still wore pants that were considered high waters and winter coats with sleeves that left the section just past my elbows to either freeze or be covered by those long gloves Madonna wore in her videos. Middle school had brought several growth spurts for me but sadly not a new closet of clothes stocked with appropriately sized acid washed jeans and Eastland oxfords… I desperately wanted to disguise these wardrobe malfunctions and invisibility was my cloak.

I believe for many kids in poverty or in a bad home or just struggling in general, they move to the middle to keep out of sight. They don’t call attention to themselves by getting in trouble or standing out. They fade into the crowd in class pictures and can go unnoticed in classes for months. They are not the one in detention or the one on the dean’s list – they are the chameleons that blend into the background. I had mastered the skill of invisibility…  Until Mr. Satoloe.

I remember my locker was right outside his door and I was already uneasy on the first day of school because I was given a lower locker surrounded by girls I considered popular, and a few of those girls were not very nice.  I felt my stomach turn as a I approached the bank of lockers and the circle of girls I had to duck around to stow my backpack.  Off to class to meet my math teacher…

I quickly found my assigned desk toward the front of the room, directly in the middle of the blackboard.  I had scored a premium seat – potentially good news or unending humiliation; only time would tell. In my memory, Mr. Satoloe looked like a slighter version of Clark Kent. Meticulously combed dark hair, obviously smart even without the glasses, and able to easily run long distances just like any good superhero can after transforming into his alter ego.  I don’t know if this is totally accurate but in my memory this describes the math wizard that stood at the front of that room and I prayed he couldn’t see me.  Maybe he was far-sighted without his glasses…

Being invisible meant I had neither bad nor good grades. It meant I didn’t raise my hand but I also never refused to answer a question when called on. But my life changed after only a few months in Mr. Satoloe’s math class at Fairview Middle School. Somehow he made me feel as smart as my friends, Becky and Scott. He made me feel that I could sit by the wickedly quick but quiet boy Travis and keep up – because he saw me. He gave me hard problems to solve, helped me when I struggled, and recognized my progress – because he saw me.  He picked me to come to the board to solve problems that stumped the class – because he saw me.  And  somehow it didn’t result in unending humiliation.

To my surprise, he recommended me for the local math competition and I traveled to a real live college campus to represent my school with other kids who I thought were smart enough to be astrophysicists and I felt like an imposter.  I had never represented anything so important but I didn’t stumble, I didn’t fall, I didn’t let myself or my school down. He thought I was smart and, slowly, I did too.  I didn’t need that invisibility cloak anymore – because he saw me.

My life changed that year.

Of course, the letdown of not winning the math club competition was momentarily crushing (I had acquired true nerd problems) and I didn’t magically become popular and accepted by those locker girls (shocking with my new Math Whiz status), but I saw myself differently and I saw my future differently. I could do more and be more and I knew I never wanted to be invisible again. So I wasn’t.

Just as Clark Kent could transform into Superman, Mr. Satoloe had transformed me from invisible into the girl who would stand at the front of the room and solve problems, the girl who would eventually become student body president, the girl who would never let clothes or grades or locker status make her feel invisible.  Mr. Satoloe cared about my potential as a student and pushed me – because he saw me.

This is what a teacher can do and I revel at the power they hold. Teachers can change the lives of our children – the small ones, the awkward medium sized ones, and the crazy adult-sized ones. All these stages are waiting for that teacher who leaves a lasting imprint. What an awesome opportunity teachers have to build a world full of empowered young people…

As we enter this new school year, I want to say thank you to the women and men that chose a profession that doesn’t offer riches or bountiful ‘thank you’s’. I want to applaud the time they invest in our children and I hope that this year they continue to fill up more children with confidence and moxie. What a blessing to make someone feel seen and smart and treasured. Teachers can change the entire trajectory of someone’s life – that is truly a superpower.

And for Mr. Satoloe? While I don’t know what my next career move will be after this sabbatical, my husband will tell you it will definitely not be as an Internet Super Sleuth. I am not sure where he is today (hopefully retired on a beach somewhere reading the latest, greatest math theories) but if you see him or know him, please tell him I said “Thank you, God bless you for believing in me, and I can never repay you for giving me a life of confidence.” I am a proud math nerd today because Mr. Satoloe saw me.

It only takes that one teacher to see the potential in a child and change the entire story of their life…

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