This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and I want to send my gratitude and appreciation to the unsung heroes of our world, our teachers. I have had the pleasure of being taught by some amazing teachers and I wanted to dedicate this week to the memory of Mrs. Kellie Beaver, my second-grade teacher who kept love at the center of what she sought to teach and give her students.
To teach is to love. A child who feels loved at home comes to school to learn; a child who doesn’t feel loved at home comes to school to be loved. I remember when I shifted from being a child that went to school to learn to a child that went to school to be loved.
Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, California was always my place of refuge. No matter what went on at home, I knew I could go to school and find my place among my peers and detach from the harsh realities that awaited me at home. I could also find love from adults that recognized something in me that showed them I needed a chance to realize who I was and what I could be. I was a child who came to school to feel loved. Even though I had a loving family at home that wanted the best for me, the love I needed did not show up in ways that I could tangibly understand until years later when I was able to reflect on and understand my life.
I was fortunate to have great teachers who saw things in me I did not see. Most of them never knew what I went through at home, but they just knew there were days when I was not as talkative or engaged in class. They noticed when my grades slipped and when I struggled to stay focused or how I would fold into myself when something was not sitting right with me.
Mrs. Beaver, who served the Lynwood community in various roles from teacher to principal, who lost her battle with cancer last year, was my second-grade teacher at the height of the turmoil at home. I do not think she ever knew the extent of what went on at my home, but she always seemed to notice when something was off with me and knew what to say. I remember one incident after I had a rough weekend at home.
That Saturday night started off normal. It was one of those rare good weeks where we were able to rent a movie from the video store and we had my favorite dinner, chili cheese dogs. I do not recall what the occasion was, but I remember every other detail of that night vividly. We had just finished watching The Beauty and the Beast, and my mom sent us to bed because it was late and we needed to be up early the next morning for Sunday school. For some reason, this sent my dad into a rage and he protested. My sisters and I, knowing church on Sunday was as inevitable as the sky being blue went to our and got ready for bed, but my parents continued to argue. My mother is not the type to pursue an argument or any conversation longer than she feels necessary, so she left the room and walked toward the living room.
In a fit and rage, my dad followed her. Concerned, I followed behind. When she reached the living room, I remember him grabbing her by the neck and throwing her onto the coffee table. She landed so hard the table almost broke. As she lay on the floor, he straddled her and started to strangle her. I still remember the sound of my mother gasping for air. It is a scene that haunts me to this day. I was not old enough nor big enough to pull him off of her, and he completely ignored my screams, so I ran to get my sister for help.
“He’s killing her!” I yelled, and my sister ran into the living room and hit my dad and yelled for him to stop. He stopped, not because he came to his senses, but because he was so upset that my sister yelled at him that he followed her back into our room to scold her. While his attention was focused on my sister, my mother was able to get her purse and get out of the front door. Before he could do anything to stop her, she had gotten into the car and drove away. Not satisfied and still angry, my dad went to the kitchen and found the biggest knife he could find and waited at the front door for her to come home.
My heart was beating out of my chest, and in a silent prayer I just hoped and prayed that she would not come back. And thinking back to that day, I could not imagine what state of mind my mom must have been in and how hard it must have been for her to leave the house and leave us there with him. I know she knew that he would not hurt us, but she needed to get away.
A few minutes went by and he still stood at the door waiting for her to come back home. My heart sunk to the bottom of my stomach when I heard her car pull into the driveway. I eased up behind my dad, so I could see what was going on. My mother walked into the yard and behind her were two sheriff deputies. In a panic, my dad turned to put the knife back in the kitchen, and I ran back into my room fearing he would see me. She had not called them, one of our neighbors must have called them hearing the commotion come from our house. However they got there, I am thankful for them knowing how badly that night could have ended. My dad left our house that evening and that was the last time he lived with us.
Monday, at school, my classmates and teacher noticed I was quieter than usual. Normally, I was keen to answer questions, participate in classroom discussions and was usually the first to finish my work. That day and the rest of that week I barely said a word and did not feel like going out for recess. I remember being asked over and over what was wrong, and not understanding how to unpackage what had happened that weekend, I kept replying, “I’m fine.”
Later that week, with the incident still playing over and over in my head, I was just not in the mood for questions. One of my classmates kept prodding for answers and I slammed a book on the desk and yelled at my classmate to leave me alone. Of course, this caught the attention of the entire class and Mrs. Beaver;she said I would have to stay after school to talk to her.
After school, Mrs. Beaver sat me down. She did not ask what happened, she did not try to get me to talk about my feelings, and she did not punish me for my behavior. Instead, when she saw the tears in my eyes, she just grabbed me and hugged me. What she said to me stuck with me ever since.
She said, “I know it’s tough, and it does not make sense. It sure as hell is not fair, but I never want to see you let things that happen to you or in front of you change who you are or what you do. You have a huge heart, and you bring so much joy to every room you walk in, your classmates love you and so do I. When you are not present we all notice, and our class is not what it should be. I need you to be as tough as whatever you are facing at home because I do not want to see you waste the talent or potential you have and I certainly don’t want to see your heart grow cold. Your heart is a gift this world needs; one day, you will see. We had a bad day today, but tomorrow we get a new one. We will try again tomorrow.” The next day I came back and felt more like myself.
Great educators have an instinct and ability to key into their students and discern what is needed for that moment. We have seen this in the wake of a national tragedy, terrorist attacks, and even recent elections. Students often look to teachers to make sense of moments they do not understand. Mrs. Beaver saw a kid, who had all year long come to school eager to learn and engage with his peers, who one day came in, after experiencing trauma at home, needing to be loved.
Realizing what students come to school for helps educators make sure they leave with what they need. There is no greater gift or form of love than teaching, and whenever I have a chance to speak to teachers, I thank them for they what do and remind them of their tremendous influence. Mrs. Beaver is no longer with us, but her influence lives on in me. The words she told me are the words that I have uttered to encourage my students. She was most recently the principal at Wilson Elementary School in Lynwood, California. The library there is fittingly named in her honor.
I never had a chance to go back and thank her for what she did for me, but I was able to tell her husband and daughter at her memorial service. I thanked them for allowing our community to borrow her for over 20 years and told them what she means to my life. One of the toughest parts of being an educator is that you are a sower of seeds that you seldom have the privilege of harvesting. Seeds sown over a 20 years career yielded a bountiful harvest, and I hope Mrs. Kellie Beaver is looking down on all of the fields of flowers, the countless children whose life she sowed seeds. For me, she knew a boy was struggling with the reality of growing up without a father, trying to feel normal after experiencing trauma needed love and when she could have given me the punishment I deserved, she gave me what I needed instead.
To every teacher out there who goes home at night wondering if anything they did or said hit home, know you are making a difference and you do God’s work. Everything you say and do from the moment you park your car at school makes an impact on your students. We know you do not get paid enough. But for what is worth, the mark you leave on this world is immeasurable, and your work will outlive you. You matter and what you do matters! As we face uncertain times, never lose sight of the fact that what you do is life changing. We have to safeguard the wellbeing and development of our children. We have to continue to build strong, insightful, caring, critically thinking and empathetic young people because the prison cell or the emergency room will be too late.