People frequently talk about the one teacher that really made a difference in their life. Teachers, however, rarely share stories of the one student that made a difference in theirs. I had one such student very early in my teaching career. Her name was Ali, she was in fifth grade. It wasn’t her academic strides that made such a difference that year, as she was always a good student – it was her personal growth and how she “came into” her natural personality.
Ali’s confidence grew immeasurably in that last year of elementary school, but my favorite thing of all was watching her sense of humor blossom. She and I were very similar in our humor, and I loved watching her test the limits of sarcasm, and the grins she would wear for the longest time after realizing her classmates – and I – found her comments hilarious!
Ali taught me more that year than I probably taught her. Looking out to the 30 young formidable faces that stared back at me each day, I would think to myself, “THIS is why I do this!”
Teaching academics was the easy part of educating for me . . .so MY focus turned to creating an environment where my kids could feel safe, nurtured, supported, and confident. I wanted them to test the waters. I wanted them to look at differences in others as something that would bring out the best in themselves.
I wanted them to know that mistakes were ALWAYS okay, as long as we learned something from them. In my soul, I thought these were much stronger lessons, that would carry them so much further in life. Watching Ali’s transformation throughout her fifth grade year taught me that I could have a much greater impact on these young lives than merely issuing a grade on a report card. “THIS is why I do this!”
I have been blessed to have remained in touch with Ali over the past two decades. She excitedly shared all of her biggest milestones with me – her graduation from Towson University (the same school I attended) with a degree is Mass Communications, her wedding day, and then the incredible news that she was pregnant! Due to the luxury of Facebook, we shared and commented on each other’s day to day frustrations, and laughed at each other’s frequent antics along the way.
Ali’s world, as well as that for many, came crashing down during her pregnancy, when she found out she had advanced stage cervical cancer. Immediately after her beautiful son Caleb’s birth, she began aggressive chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins. Every few weeks, Ali and I would catch up and she would give me the low down on her progress. After every single conversation with her, rather than feeling sad or “less than” hopeful, I was left feeling empowered!
Ali was facing a grave situation, while balancing a newborn son, all with the utmost courage and strength. All the while, her humor remained fully in tact.I remember her telling me how upset she was when she decided to give in and shave her head, but ended the discussion by saying, “On the flip side, Mary, I haven’t had to shave my legs in 2 months . . . I can’t complain about that!”
At this same time, I was going through some pretty intense transitions in my life as well. And again, watching Ali take the bull by the horns and throw it straight to the ground, gave ME the strength and motivation to get through my own days. When I would feel overwhelmed and beaten down, I would think of Ali, and repeat to myself, “THIS is why I do this!”
Her strength carried ME through in ways she would never realize. I attended Ali’s funeral this morning, and spent the afternoon with her countless family members and friends celebrating her life.
As I listened to Ali’s siblings, her closest friends, and her parents all share their favorite stories and memories of Ali, it was humbling to hear the affect this young 31 year old woman had on the lives of every single person that encountered her.
They all talked of her confidence, her strength, her determination to make a difference in her sons life in the short years she had with him, and most of all . . . her wit and humor. I both laughed to myself and beamed with pride as I repeatedly thought, “HA! I would have said the EXACT same thing!!”
In recent years, I have chosen a career path other than classroom education. What I do now offers me the opportunity to still use all of my education background, but in the world of management. As I always say, I am still a teacher, just of taller humans now. The majority of people I work with are young adults, coming into the workforce for the first time. I can honestly say I still live with the purpose that Ali helped me realize so many years ago.
I strive to help these young adults learn to become stronger people in their future professions, by helping them become more successful in their daily lives. Just as I wanted for my students, I want my employees to feel supported, confident, comfortable coming to me with questions, concerns, and ideas, and to know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as there is a lesson learned from them.
Again, “THIS is why I do this!”
Ali always demonstrated a strong, positive energy no matter what she was facing. After being given the gift of witnessing that determination in her over the past two decades, I am empowered to do the same, when facing any challenge that comes my way – whether it’s facing a health crisis, relationships adjusting, handling my own emotional battles, struggling with a situation at work, or something as simple as deciding whether or not to make the sarcastic ass comment.
The world today is a tough place to live – everyone will experience something that will make them think that way at one point in their life. But our own attitude as we face the challenges in front of us can affect the outcome more than anything else.
Ali… YOU are the reason why I do this!
This story was submitted by Mary Morais. If you want to share your story or witnessed something that inspired you reached thousands of people, please share it with us.