A Teacher to be Remembered
How a teacher changed the course of my life
I am sharing this excerpt from my autobiography that I hope to finish by the end of the year. I hope it brings meaning and inspiration to teachers and students.
A Teacher to be Remembered
In March of 1969 I was registered at Morris elementary in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My teacher for the last three months of third grade was Mrs. Hicks. I will never forget her. Third grade is a blur academically and I have only three memories from the whole school year; two from Florida; missing the moon landing at Starkey elementary and being spanked before I went to school at Pinellas Park elementary to make me behave; but the most important memories are of the kindness and compassion my new third grade teacher in Atlantic City, Mrs. Hicks imparted to me during those last three months of the school year.
Mrs. Hicks was a petite, African American lady with a big heart. At first, Mrs. Hicks was a bit impatient with me because I had no filter and was bored easily. She quickly determined I was bored because of my intelligence though. The lack of filter was ADHD, something nobody had heard of yet, but I was diagnosed with in adulthood. One day, only a month after being in NJ, I came to school with a fat lip. The evening before I had brought a note home from Mrs. Hicks addressing her challenges with me. She did not intend for me to be punished, she just wanted to let my “parents” know so they could help me. Instead, Terry, my new step-father screamed at me, pulled me over to him by my hair and hit me in the mouth. I can’t remember any of his words now because every time he spewed his anger at me over the next six years, it was always the same kind of scenario. The one difference was that my mother finally said something and told Terry that if he ever hit me in the face again, it would be the last time.
When I arrived at school the next day, I was exhausted and stressed, unable to focus on anything. When Mrs. Hicks saw my face, I remember the expression on her face. She was horrified and sensed immediately what had happened. I remember she took me outside the classroom and asked me what happened to my lip. I told her the lie I had been ordered to give in case anyone asked about it.
Mrs. Hicks didn’t buy it, but this was 1969, she was black and we were white. She could not say anything directly to my parents without risking her job. I remember she put her arms around me and hugged me tight saying a prayer that God would watch over me and told me that I could come to her if I needed help anytime. She knew already that I was an avid reader. In third grade, I was now reading at near high school level. She knew also that my parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses because when I was enrolled in school, they informed the teacher that I did not salute the flag, along with their rules about holidays and birthdays.
“Leslie, you are a very smart girl. I want you to read all the books that you can. I’m going to get you a school library card and you can check out books anytime you want to. In just nine years, you will be eighteen years old. You will be free then to do whatever you want with your life, do you understand?” I didn’t understand quite yet because children don’t think that far ahead. It isn’t until sixth grade that children begin to see time in an organized manner.
It might has well have been twenty years, but I remembered her words; she gave me hope and something to look forward to, freedom. She also gave me special permission to read in class when I finished assignments so that I would not be fidgety or bored. I was usually the first one done with quizzes, tests or classroom assignments. There was another even more important thing Mrs. Hick’s would give me that year, the priceless gift of faith in myself and hope for a better future.
“Line up quietly please!” Mrs. Hicks admonished; the kids were restless and excited to see why they were going to the auditorium. Leslie was last in line, holding a book she was reading. “Leslie, please leave the book here so you don’t lose it” Mrs. Hicks told her before they left the room. They marched single file down the hallway to the auditorium across from the principals’ office. The school music teacher had requested the two third grades audition for solo parts in the upcoming spring school music program. Each grade would perform a different group number and include some solo parts. This year, she had chosen the old song, “On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City” for the third grade.
Leslie sat next to Stephanie Klein, her neighbor that lived across the street from her, and Becky Grasso who lived one street over. The two girls had attended school together since kindergarten. Leslie wanted so much to be friends with them, but knew somehow it would never happen because of being a Jehovah’s Witness. The music teacher played the song several times on the piano and sang along with it so that all the kids could hear it well enough to get through a small audition. There were four solo parts, two boys and two girls.
Several people from her class auditioned then Leslie heard her name called. She confidently walked up the steps to the stage and the music teacher handed her the lyrics. Leslie did not know how unusual her voice was or that anybody would pay attention to her. She loved music and liked to sing, but it was her mother that was the singer. The music played and her clear, resonant and perfectly pitched voice cut through the whispers and noises of the students. As she sang, Leslie felt a kind of joy and happiness she had never felt before. For the first time, people were listening to her and she sang the whole verse with accuracy and feeling.
When she finished, the teachers applauded and most of the kids joined in. The music teacher came over to her and told her the part was hers and made a fuss over how talented she was and how she couldn’t wait for her to be in the school choir. Leslie felt a glow of warmth and acceptance that had been missing from her life. She felt special instead of weird. She sat back down next to Stephanie and Becky who had already both auditioned and smiled happily at them, feeling a sense of contentment and anticipation of something wonderful to look forward to.
Neither of the girls smiled back at her or spoke to her when she sat down. They whispered to each other for a couple of minutes, then Becky leaned over and pointed at Leslie. “She has ugly eyes, doesn’t she?” Becky asked Stephanie. Stephanie didn’t respond but she didn’t stop her friend from her verbal bullying either. Leslie felt like somebody had just slapped her across the face again. She did not understand that the girls were jealous of her talent. They felt intimidated by her. Tears welled up in her eyes and she felt like she wanted to go hide somewhere.
Becky visibly enjoyed Leslie’s reaction then Mrs. Hicks glanced their way and saw Leslie crying and came over. After she heard what Becky had said, she made her apologize to Leslie. Mrs. Hicks was very unhappy with the two girls. They were usually the best behaved in the class. They were sent home with a note to their parents about their unkind remarks and both girls were chastised by their parents. Neither of them either said anything unkind to her again. They didn’t include her in their friendship, but they never hurt her deliberately again. If her teacher had not been so aware and sensitive to what Leslie experienced, the bullying might have become a pattern with them.
Leslie couldn’t wait to get home and tell her mom about her solo. Molly was happy for her and promised to come to the performance. Over the next month, Leslie enjoyed the rehearsals at school and felt as though things would be okay. She settled into a routine and things remained relatively calm at home.
Leslie had quickly learned to read Terry’s moods for her own protection; she avoided talking to him or seeing him as much as possible by staying in her room reading. At meals, she ate as quickly as possible to avoid conversations with him. Every time she tried to join a conversation, it backfired. Terry did not consider her thoughts or opinions deserved a place in their conversations.
June came and it was the big day. The final school concert and awards assembly. Sure enough, Molly came, without Terry. He had zero interest in anything Leslie did that he had no control over. Leslie sang proudly and was rewarded with loud applause from parents and teachers. After the concert, the music teacher approached Molly and told her how thrilled she was to have Leslie in the school and handed her a permission slip for Leslie to join the school choir. She was already planning how she would use Leslie next school year. Molly politely thanked her and they left. As they walked out, several parents stopped them to say how much they enjoyed hearing Leslie sing. It was a moment that the child would keep close to her during dark days.
Molly told Leslie what a great job she did and for the first time in a long time, Leslie felt a sense of connection and purpose. At dinner that evening, Molly told Terry about the concert and then decided to show him the permission form to join the choir. Why she did that is a mystery. Terry did not adopt Leslie and had no right to sign school permission slips. Thus far, he had expressed zero interest in Leslie’s education. Leslie smiled at Terry hoping that he might actually compliment her and be proud of her. She still hoped and still believed that if she just behaved perfectly, Terry would love her. He grunted with a mouth full of meatloaf but gave no compliment and ignored her.
The next day was the last day of school. Leslie got dressed and ready then ran up the steps to her mother’s room to get the permission slip for the music teacher. Terry was not home; he left every morning at 5:00 am to supervise his paper carriers. Molly sat up in bed and called Leslie over. “Honey, I can’t let you join the school choir.” Leslie was speechless and felt as though Terry had just hit her again. She knew it was because of him.
Molly told her that they couldn’t let her join the choir because there were too many songs, they would not allow her to sing. Anything patriotic or holiday related was off limits. “But mommy, I can just sing with the other songs and not do those!” Leslie quickly responded. “I’m sorry Leslie I can’t disobey Terry. He is the head of the household and he made the decision.” Leslie turned and walked to the door, “Don’t I get a kiss goodbye?” asked her mother. Leslie did not turn around. She ran down the steps and out the door to walk to school. She cried as she walked, feeling so alone.
Leslie sat at her desk with her head down while the rest of the class stood up for the morning flag salute. She closed her eyes to keep the tears from coming out again. After the salute, Mrs. Hicks began the class and asked them to take out their reading textbooks. Leslie didn’t move. The teacher didn’t notice at first, she was busy writing on the chalkboard. When she turned, she noticed and walked over. She lifted Leslie’s head and asked her if she was sick. When she saw the look on the child’s face and the tears, she instructed the class to silently read the pages she had put on the board then took Leslie by the hand out to the hallway to find out what was wrong. Leslie burst into tears and Mrs. Hicks once again found herself consoling this child. She wanted so much to help Leslie. The child had tremendous potential, both academically and musically.
“They won’t let me be in the choir” Leslie sputtered as her nose began to run. Mrs. Hicks, always armed with tissues in her pocket handed her one and asked why. “Because they sing holiday songs and patriotic songs and I’m not allowed to sing them.” Mrs. Hicks sighed with frustration and sadness. ‘Why does it always seem like the smartest and best kids seem to get stuck with the worst possible parents?’ she asked herself. She had been teaching already for thirty years and was close to retirement. She had seen so many children deprived of the childhood they deserved and didn’t know what she could do to help Leslie. She knew that helping her self-esteem was important. It was the one thing she could do that might make a difference in the child’s life.
She took Leslie over to a bench in the hallway and sat down with her. “Leslie, you have a special gift from God. He has given you a beautiful voice. You need to keep singing whenever, or wherever you can, even if you are just singing by yourself or singing along with the radio. You have this voice for a reason. You may not be free to use it the way you want until you grow up, but it belongs to you and nobody can take it away from you. You are very special, don’t ever forget that. You are also very smart and such a good reader. Keep reading and keep singing and you will be okay. Someday, you will sing whatever you want to sing and people will come to hear you.”
Then she took Leslie’s hands and said a prayer with her. She even used the name “Jehovah” to make Leslie feel at ease with the prayer and hoped it would comfort and strengthen the child. Mrs. Hicks was a hero that day. She could not know that fifty-two years later, her love and caring would still be as fresh in Leslie’s mind as it was that day, or how much her encouragement would inspire the child to be strong, to survive and in time, find her true voice.