If you haven't seen this video demonstrating the power of a good teacher, stop reading this blog now and watch it. You'll see the tearful surprise that high school chorus teacher Gabrielyn Watson received as she returned to work after a seven-month battle with cancer. Watch it--with a box of tissue handy.
I once assumed that every student had a Ms. Watson--one teacher who understood them, inspired them and made a deep and lasting impact on the trajectory of their life.
But I was wrong.
When I asked Renee, my best friend from high school, who her favorite teacher was, she said, "I never had one. In the four years, I can't think of a single teacher who tried to connect with me."
My "Ms. Watson" was Pauletta Saxon, my high school counselor at Corliss High School. Let me tell you why this matters.
I was a chorus major, but I wasn't allowed to take honors courses. After earning straight A's in ninth grade, I went to Mrs. Saxon to ask for more academic rigor. (It's shocking that at 15, I had to advocate for myself to receive a quality education.) She directed me to the program office, where I was told no, and then tried again elsewhere, and was denied again. I auditioned for and got accepted into the music program which was on a totally different track from the honors program, thus I couldn't make the change.
In my desperation, I went back to Mrs. Saxon and implored her to do something. She said she wanted me to fulfill my potential and she fought to have me switched into the honors program. We've held a special bond ever since.
Mrs. Saxon ran the Principal Scholars program, which emphasized college attendance and gave inner-city kids early college experiences. In my junior year, she even convinced my doting, overprotective mother to let me spend four weeks away in a summer enrichment program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
I remember filling out financial aid papers and not knowing my social security number. Mrs. Saxon was so incredulous that I didn't know it that she gave me three days to find the number and memorize it.
When I won a college scholarship or internship, Mrs. Saxon would pick me up at my house and take me to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.
Though she retired 22 years ago, Mrs. Saxon has continued to share some of my milestones. She attended my bridal shower in 2000, my wedding, my first baby shower and my housewarming party in 2005.
I still use the cast-iron waffle maker she gave me...they don't make them like that anymore!
This past Christmas, I called to check on Mrs. Saxon, for we hadn't spoken in a few years. She invited my whole family over to her house on a Sunday evening. Her husband's 80th birthday banner from a party thrown two weeks prior was still taped to the wall. Mrs. Saxon told me she was soon turning 80 herself.
We sifted through pictures of the teachers who showed up to the most recent Corliss reunion that occurs every Veteran's Day. I saw my old biology teacher, Ms. Gray. I remembered that though she had treated me like any other student, she was a "Ms. Watson" to my other best friend, Sheri. Ms. Gray loved Sheri so much she would even buy Sheri outfits that she caught on sale.
Before we left Mrs. Saxon's house, she asked my husband if he could try to get the bottom drawer of her stove open. That's where she stored her skillets and one of the pot handles must have gotten wedged inside. She said that her and her husband's knees prevented them from bending too low, and even if they could get down there they wouldn't be able to get back up!
My husband got down and gave the stove a few violent shakes. The drawer opened and the elderly couple rejoiced like lottery winners. It felt great to give back to them in some small way. Mrs. Saxon hugged and kissed my three kids one by one, and told us to come back again soon.
I wonder what path my life would have taken if I had not demanded to be put on the honors track. I probably wouldn't have gotten to know Mrs. Saxon so well. I might have just been another name on the list of 300 students she had to advise. I doubt I would have participated in the Principal Scholars program or gotten help filling out the FAFSA.
At the time, I never stopped to think about how my best friend Renee must have felt as she watched me soar. She wasn't on the honors track, but I knew she was just as smart as I was.
Unlike me, Renee hadn't pestered the administration about getting into honors classes, and she didn't have an in-school champion. She was left to figure out life after high school on her own. She bounced in and out of jobs and colleges and didn't earn her undergraduate degree until her late 30s and her MBA until she was 40.
That's why I believe that all students at the same school should be entitled to the same college-preparatory resources regardless of what track they're in. Every student needs a Ms. Watson, Mrs. Saxon or Ms. Gray.
Every kid needs a champion. I had mine and she helped shape my life.
Thank you, Mrs. Saxon.