Why I Teach

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

I'm a believer that underneath every smiling face is a story.  We each have a story and our students have stories too.  And sometimes, just sometimes, our teachers play a huge role in our stories.   Here's my story.

Shortly after I was born, my mother relapsed and went back to a life of addiction. At three months old I was removed from her home and put into foster care. 

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

During the next three years, I lived in 5 different foster homes.  I saw nurturing loving foster homes, and those that simply used the foster care system as a means of getting a paycheck. Let's just say that life can be very ugly for children who are not wanted by the adults in their lives. Moving in and out of foster homes was tough, really tough. But the last home I was in was wonderful. A loving and nurturing home that was desperate for a daughter to add to their family. For the first time, I had a family.

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

My time there was cut short when I was adopted by my biological father. The father that I did not know and had not built a relationship with. I still remember the day I left my foster family like it was yesterday. My dad pulled up in his large box truck and I climbed in with all my belongings. We drove several hours to a small one bedroom apartment in Chicago. I slept on the floor on a mattress  in my dad’s room and my clothes were in a box in the corner of the room. We were poor, dirt poor. I was around 4 or 5 years old when we got evicted from that apartment and moved in with my dad’s parents. 

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

Grandma and Grandpa were a riot. Grandma was a republican and Grandpa was a democrat. To better help you understand their relationship you need to read this quote from my journal: “I love my grandma and grandpa very much but they don’t get along with each other. My grandpa plays baseball with me and my grandma calls my grandpa an ‘S.O.B’." That about sums it up.

Because of this tumultuous environment my dad was desperate to find a way for us to move out. At first, it started with a place to get away on the weekend, but it quickly became our new home.

When I was in second grade my father decided it would be better to move out of my grandparent's house and move into a teepee. Yep - you read that right - a teepee. The kind of teepee that has no water, no bathroom, no refrigerator, no electricity. A real life rustic teepee became my home.

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

Life in a teepee sounds like an adventure filled vacation destination. But for a young girl, it was not an adventure - it was life. The teepee sat on an old junkyard, down a long road. I'm pretty sure that no one even knew I lived there. Without a refrigerator we were limited on what we could eat and keep. We drank powdered milk, ate canned soup and hot dogs. We cooked over a fire. We made kerosene lamps out of pickle jars. We used a car battery and a wire to make a light bulb light up. Can you say STEM instruction!

Over time we collected things to make the teepee more functional. I remember collecting a toilet bowl and bathtub insert from a junkyard. I also remember when we installed a red pitcher pump. My dad taught me how to prime the pump so we could use groundwater to take a bath. We pumped water from the ground to use for bathing and cleaning. The only problem was that oil from the junkyard seeped into the ground and that water source. I'm pretty sure I was dirtier after my bath.

We lived in the teepee for 6 years. Yes my friend - 6 whole years.

I was in the 8th grade when we moved into our first house. It was a turn for the better - but the past had a huge impacts on me. By the time I started 8th grade I had been to 7 different schools. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that by moving schools so much I had lots of gaps in my learning. I was lucky if I had C's on my report card. I also spent of a lot of time on my own because my father was usually working to support us. I spent hours and days at friends homes and would come and go as I pleased. Not really the structure that most kids thrive on.

When I was 12 years old my father felt that I should meet my biological mother. Before I left, he made sure to pull me aside to let me know that 13 years earlier he had given my mother money for an abortion. Money to abort me. That was quite the send-off message.

When I met my mom, I learned more.  My mom had not gotten an abortion (obviously since I'm here).  Instead, she had used the money to buy drugs so she could get high.  In her words, she thought that the drugs would "burn me out" of her body.  Despite their attempts to end my life before it started, God had a different plan.  It was a miracle that I was ever born!

I continued to live with my Dad for the next few years.  From 8th to 10th grade I moved schools (and friends) 3 more times.  I lived through several short term relationships between my dad and different women.  I felt like life was spinning out of control.  The combination of teenage hormones, moving schools, losing and making friends and a lack of adult influence in my life left me wrecked.  For the first time in my life I considered ending it.  Taking my own life seemed like the only way out.

The Catalyst for Change

As a junior in high school I moved from dad's house in Chicago to California.  Why - well that's an entire other story.  But I can look back now and know that this happened for a reason.  This move very well may have saved my life.  

This is when I met HER . .  the educator . . . the teacher . . . the woman who believed in me.  The woman who helped me see my value and worth.  The woman who, for the first time in my life, made me feel like there was hope.

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

Mrs. Annette was her name and she was the administrator of the school I attended.  She also taught the sign language class that I was taking as an elective.  I don't for a minute believe that any of this was just a coincidence.  Right off the bat I noticed that there was something different about Mrs. Annette. Something special.  I noticed that she cared about her students in a way that I had never seen before.  

I had the opportunity to hear her story (remember - everyone has a story). I remember thinking that if Mrs. Annette could escape the dysfunctional life and become such an amazing person, then there was hope for me too. She became my mentor and had more of an impact on my life that I really understood at that time.

Mrs. Annette helped me see that the deficiencies in my life - absence of a mother, holes in my education, and everything else - they did not have to define me. They were not me. I still remember what she once told me: "We do not determine our destiny. We make choices and those choices determine our destiny." For the first time I realized that many of those negatives in my life were not my choices.

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

Now don't get me wrong. I was a tough cookie and hard to love at times. But Mrs. Annette didn't let that deter her. She loved me. Some days with tough love - but love nonetheless. If it weren't for Mrs. Annette, her guidance, love and the time she spent with me, I would not be who I am today. Thank you Annette!

That's it - that's why I became a teacher.  I became a teacher because of Mrs. Annette.  She helped me see that any child, from any background, with any story, can make it.  And not only make it - but turn around and do the same for others.  The ultimate way to "pay it forward."

I don't know if I will have this type of effect on any of my students.  I can only hope that I use my position in the lives of these kids to try.  To see them for who they are on the inside, not the actions they show on the outside.  To listen to them, truly listen.  To guide them, to love them, to teach them.

The Kinderhearted Classroom Why I Teach Elizabeth's Story

If you are an educator please hear me when I say this - you matter.  You are making a difference.  What you do is important.  Every day, every week, every month and every year there are opportunities placed before you.  Opportunities to be the smile they may not get anywhere else.  To share advice through words and actions.  To shape the next generation.  To change the course of a life.

Mrs. Annette saw the opportunity and for that I am forever grateful.  Not only did she effect me, but the lives of my own children and students too.

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