Almost a decade ago, I witnessed my mom earn her degree in education. Somehow the decade before raising three children didn’t wear her out because she soon began student teaching, substitute teaching, and finally teaching full-time at middle schools and high schools. At the time, I was the age of her students. The tears that came with each lesson she planned quickly convinced me to cross teacher off my list of potential careers. Eliminated before that was anything in the medical field due to my habit of fainting at the sight of blood.
However, my high school classes soon taught me that the science and mathematical-focused futures were altogether not for me and I would have to accept that the liberal arts degree was in my genes. The idea of studying English was not attractive to me with my mother being an English teacher because I felt I had already earned a homeschool degree.
Growing up, she read “To Kill A Mockingbird” as a bedtime story and fed me grammar for breakfast. She read over every middle school essay, corrected every misspelled text, and ensured that the power of language would not be lost on me.
Ultimately, I chose journalism because of this (and to spite this; it was at least a little different).
As I enter my senior year of college, I realize that second to being a parent, the significance of my mom’s role is bigger than even she knows. She now teaches English at an alternative school in Danbury, Connecticut. The Alternative Center of Excellence or “ACE” takes under its historical brick wing a little over 100 students who would not succeed as well in the public school. The reasons for this often include battles at home as well as the mind.
“My first year teaching there, I quit on the last day of school. I hated it,” my mother tells me. After taking a long-term substitute position the next year at a middle school and traditional high school, she got a call from ACE again asking for her to come back. She agreed, having realized that the other schools didn’t feel as much like a home as ACE, despite the challenge it had been.
My mom has been there for almost seven years now and though her lesson plans have gotten easier, she brings home much more than those now. Her role has expanded from going through the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet with her students, to also helping her students through their own tragedies, whether it be the death of a friend, pregnancies, the absence of a parent due to substance addiction, or crippling anxiety and depression. My mom has gone through the stages of grief with many students in all of these situations.
She tells me that she has grieved the deaths of four of her students in her seven years there. This is something her training never taught.
However, the stories are not all losses. In particular, my mom recalls to me the story of one student who had one of the biggest impacts on her and to whom she also had a great impact.
The student’s real name was John, but my mom says that on the first day, he told her to call him ‘Taco.’ He said, “Daniela, John is such a common name and I’m not common. Taco is a name no one has, I’m Mexican, and also I really like tacos.”
According to my mom, Taco was a difficult student with a tough home life and had been in his senior year for nearly three years. He never took things too seriously and was always joking around; a quality that served as both a lifeboat for his struggles, but a downfall when it came to his grades in school.
“One day, he comes into my class and says, ‘I’m scared,’” my mom says. He told her how his girlfriend had just gotten pregnant and she wanted to keep the baby and he had no idea how to be a father, much less succeed on his own. After listening to more about his situation, my mom proceeded to tell him, “All you have to know to do it right is by making every decision with and for the love of your baby.”
Taco became more serious about his grades and focused on finally graduating this time. As graduation approached, it seemed as though he might not graduate due to a grade in one class just shy of passing. According to my mom, she was disappointed hearing he did not graduate in time to walk. Apparently, so was every other teacher at ACE as they banded together to help him pass after school had ended. Ultimately, what brought his grade in the one class up to passing and to earning his diploma, was an essay he wrote on “How to be a Father.”
My mom is now friends with Taco and his girlfriend on Facebook and continually gets updates about them and their baby. On each Mother’s Day, Taco sends my mom a message thanking her.
ACE is a school that students choose to attend and isn’t the type of school where they watch the clock anticipating dismissal. It is their home, and often they dread the end of the school day. My mom is not simply their teacher, but she is also their parent, caretaker, nurse, mentor, social worker, Uber driver, and animal shelter.
For this reason, the coronavirus pandemic has made the past year extremely difficult for ACE. Aside from the fact that many students lacked technology and wifi to log into virtual class, they also lacked the home life, care, and safety that ACE provided. To remedy this, every student was supplied a Chromebook, wifi hotspot, free breakfast and lunch, counseling, and countless driveway visits from the Principal, Social Worker, Guidance Counselor, and teachers, like my mother. For every holiday, she drove to the eight houses within her guidance family to deliver care packages to let them know she still cared.
But for two students, the pandemic has also been a blessing. According to my mom, she has two juniors in her class with debilitating social anxiety. Before the pandemic, they showed up to school for only about 70 of the 180 days, so their chances of ever graduating would have been small. However, as classes became virtual, much of their anxiety was relieved allowing them to show up and complete assignments. Within the past year, they have excelled and are on target going to graduate next spring.
The impact my mom has on her students is impactful to me. From sharing my mom’s car rides with an ACE student and adopting the kittens of an ACE student who couldn’t afford to take care of them, to saying a prayer for a student and attending the school’s Thanksgiving lunch, I have come to know and appreciate each of her students and colleagues as I hear the stories of triumph and tribulation.
“We are all an eclectic group,” my mom says about ACE. “To use a metaphor, we are a mixed can of nuts. We are all so different in our own ways, but somehow when we come together, we are better and so much stronger.”
Gabriela Esposito is the public relations specialist for Holdsworth Communications and specializes in educational journalism and storytelling.