I initially hated the way I grew up but I have grown to appreciate the strength and perseverance my past has allowed me to acquire over the years. I love the way my life has come full circle in debt to a teacher who believed in me. My biological mother was 16 when she had me and my father was a drug addict. I was removed by the Department of Child and Family Services, placed into foster care at 4 and adopted at 9. But my rough start in life was not as tough as elementary school in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, where I languished in special education classes. Except I was not a special education child. The trauma of entering foster care and being removed from my mother shut me down and I didn’t socialize with other children. Because I had difficulty speaking about what I was experiencing, I was mistakenly labeled as needing special education. The label would have stuck if it wasn’t for Ms. Johnson, my second-grade teacher, who appeared in my life and changed the course it would take. For the first time, I felt someone at school was aware of who I was. Ms. Johnson cared enough to pay careful attention to me. She knew I was smarter than I let on. Thanks to her, I not only was removed from special education classes, but eventually earned a scholarship after fifth grade to attend Kingswood Oxford, a private school in affluent West Hartford. I flourished there and went on to Trinity College, a well-regarded liberal arts college, majoring in studio arts.
Coming Full Circle
I know firsthand the difference a teacher’s belief in a student’s life can make. Were it not for Ms. Johnson, no one would have realized I was a child in distress, not one who had a learning disability. I wouldn’t have received an elite education—one that illustrates the stark differences between resources made available to wealthy children and and resources made accessible to underprivileged children. My life and career have come full circle. In 2007, I joined Teach For America and for six years, I taught at the same school I attended as a child, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary. I recently transferred to Burr, also in Hartford, and currently teach 27 students in an inclusive classroom that is comprised of special-needs children and English-language learners. It has pained me over the past eight years to witness the reaction of students realizing and experiencing the disparities in resources. Whenever my students play against teams from other schools, for example, they are confronted with a sense of what they are lacking. They visit exquisite venues at away games, their uniforms aren’t sparkling new, and their used sports equipment is worn down and tattered. It’s the little things, the ones you don’t think about, that give children the false impression they don’t quite measure up.
A ‘Focus on the Whole Child’
It has been a difficult task to instill in all of our students the belief that they are just as good and deserving as their competing academic and athletic counterparts. All children should receive a quality education so I believe in setting high expectations for them while at the same time accommodating their different learning styles. Even more than witnessing my diverse class of learners make significant gains within the school year, I love seeing the looks on my students’ faces when they understand something, splashes of “Aha!” awash over happy smiles. I celebrate them when these moments occur. It’s the little things that count. Most important, I focus on the whole child, striving to be aware of what’s happening in their lives and paying attention to their individual needs. Like Ms. Johnson reached me all those years ago, I want them to know I care about who they are beyond the superficial facades they might portray. I care enough to look deeper and am continuously grateful for the opportunity to do this in my hometown.
Syeita Rhey is a fourth-grade teacher at Burr School in Hartford, Connecticut, and has recently completed a master’s in teacher leadership.