When I was in fourth grade, I was held back a year in math. So while the rest of my fourth grade class was practicing their division, I'd sit with the third graders and work on multiplication.
The following year, I had moved to South Carolina and my math progression stalled even more. So when the rest of my fifth grade class would be practicing their fractions, I'd sit with the fourth graders and work on my division.
Despite the fact that my mother shelled out a small fortune on private tutors from Bob Jones University that would come to our home, several nights a week, and sit and pray with me at the kitchen table before launching in to our numerical studies ("Dear Lord. Please help open Jenny's mind so that she can UNDERSTAND!") until I reached college, math completely eluded me.
By the time I had arrived in middle school, I was tagged as having a learning disability and in lieu of participating in a science class, I would sit in a class called "resource" with all of the other learning disabled children. It was insanely embarrassing to be seen walking in to this class, as my friends were walking in to their "normal" classes.
My resource teacher was named Mrs. Parsons and in addition to teaching the learning disabled class, she was the extremely popular eighth grade English teacher. During the course of parent-teacher conferences, she became very good friends with my mother. To the point that when my mother had to go out of town on a business trip, I stayed with Mrs. Parsons at her home. And for a whole week, I got to live with the coolest teacher in school.
As it is for so many kids, that phase in my life, those years of adolescence, were particularly difficult. I was undergoing a rapid period of growth and development. My parents divorce was relatively recent, I was in a new environment with a different accent from every one else, and I was segregated from my peers at least once a day to go to the 'dumb kid' class.
There's no doubt: I wasn't happy in my skin and I didn't like who I was. Nor did I like my braces, glasses or training bra. So I got in to the habit of fabricating some very TALL tales in an attempt to create a life that was different from my reality.
I'd lie about anything ranging from my name, to where I lived. Once, I lied to one of my teachers about making the 1984 Olympics team. The truth came out when my Principal called me in to her office to tell me her grand plans for having a pep rally in the auditorium for the entire school. And yes! Of course my mother would be invited! Why would she not?!
(You've never seen so much back pedaling in your life. No, not the US Olympic Team! What I meant is the US SPECIAL Olympic Team. Yes! I'm their MASCOT!!)
One day, I told a silly lie to Mrs. Parsons and she nailed it on the spot. Instead of writing me off as a confused and troubled kid, she took me aside and very firmly told me that she could not have a friendship with someone who she couldn't trust. And since it would make her very sad to not be my friend any more, I need to always tell her the truth.
So from that point forward, I did.
Some time between sixth and eighth grade - before I moved on to high school - Mrs. Parsons gave me a copy of the book, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Unfortunately, I loaned my copy of the book several years later and never saw it again. But I do remember that inside the front cover, Mrs. Parsons inscribed a note which read, "Dear Jenny, you are such a vibrant young soul and you have so much potential yet to be tapped."
There is no doubt that her friendship and the simple words that she inscribed in that small paperback book have shaped my life, and have sprung to mind - numerous times - over the years.
Oh! The places one can go, if they have potential!
When Charlie was in highschool, he ran track - then he quit track to play football - then he quit football to try soccer. As it turns out, the soccer coach was also the assistant football coach and he recognized my husband as one of his former running backs. Instead of encouraging him to go out a number of different sports before settling on one that he truly enjoyed, he told my husband, "You can't play soccer because I don't want quitters on my team and it's just a matter of time before you quit this game, too." His comment shocked and embarrassed my husband, who promptly stopped playing any and all sports. For several years.
Isn't it incredible the people that we encounter in our lives at critical junctures, and how they can transform us, either positively or negatively? And isn't it incredible how it's so much easier to believe in ourselves when we see others believing in us? If others like us, we like us! But if others don't ... well, it can severely damage our self-image.
Twenty five years later, I'm still in touch with my former teacher. Although we haven't seen each other in at least two decades, we trade Christmas cards every year. When I graduated from college, I wrote her a letter telling her how much of a positive impact she had on my life. On our wedding day, my mother read a passage from the book, "The Prophet" that Mrs. Parsons had sent me as a wedding gift. And when I completed graduate school, with a Masters in Science, I wrote to tell my former Resource teacher that I had finally caught up in math and actually enjoyed it, after having taken several years of algebra, statistics, calculus, chemistry and physics.
One day last week, I had a particularly difficult day. My emotions were running high and I was easily frustrated, snapping at any one that was within close range. That night, I picked up a photo album and spotted a picture of my old teacher and I was instantly reminded of her gentle and empathetic demeanor, despite being surrounded on a daily basis by emotionally-charged middle schoolers. I was reminded how she knew me at a time in my life when I had very little self confidence or self worth and had an affinity for mind-blowing fibs.
And yet, she saw potential.
Over the past few days, I've been thinking about the lessons that Mrs. Parsons taught me. I've been thinking that there are going to be people in our lives that push us over the brink. People that lie to us, or challenge us to our very core. People that are struggling with demons and who we might see as being plagued with problems, and possibly irreparable. But then I think about Mrs. Parsons' words and how they shaped me.
I'm not entirely sure why my teacher befriended me, but she saw something good in me - that I couldn't see in myself. And now that I've grown up a bit, I think I understand.
Who knows what anyone else is going through? Who knows why people act the way that they do, or what issues they might be harboring? Who knows what a kind deed, gentle ear, or encouraging word could do to transform the most unlikely?
So my goal as a person, and as a role model to our children, is to be more cognizant of my words and actions and the potential good or harm that they might have on someone else's spirit.
The fact is simple: every one of us has so much potential ... yet to be tapped.
Isn't that amazing?
My teacher from 25 years ago ... is still teaching me, today.