When I was in high school in the late ‘60’s, circumstances of poverty, lack of resources, and gender discrimination prevented me from even considering attending college. In the spring of my senior year, I was called to the guidance office where I was informed that my grade point average qualified me to be the class valedictorian, but because I had not applied to college, that achievement would not be mine. When John Y, my AP English teacher, learned about this, he recruited Mary A, my Latin teacher, and they went to work.
Within two weeks, I received a call from the University of Pittsburgh to interview with the admissions office. One week before graduation, I received my admission letter, with an offer of a full scholarship. My name appeared on the graduation program: Class Valedictorian, Academic Scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.
Their act of kindness dramatically changed the course of my life.
I graduated, an English major, of course, and in the fall of that year, found myself teaching high school English in Virginia. I went on to earn a graduate degree and have remained in the classroom for most of my career. During those years, I have never forgotten the kindness afforded me by these two teachers, and I have devoted my life to returning that kindness by encouraging my students to remain in school and earn that degree. Sometimes, when appropriate, I even share my story.
These days, I work for the U S Department of Education and still teach part time at night because I believe, as my boss Secretary Arne Duncan, has said, “It’s no surprise that the single biggest in-school influence on student academic growth is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom—not socioeconomic status, not family background, but the quality of the teacher at the head of the class.” Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that performing a life-altering act of kindness is restricted to teachers only, but the teacher can be a powerful positive influence and is often, sadly, the only caring adult in a young person’s life.
Elizabeth Williamson is the Department’s Regional Director of Communications and Outreach for the Northeast, based in the Philadelphia, PA office. She also teaches rhetoric at Temple University. This blog is taken from her essay for “This I Believe.”