Updated: Nov 20, 2020
On Saturday, December 1, 1979, just days before my ninth birthday, I was sitting on the couch when my thirteen-year-old brother suddenly burst through the front door, half carrying, half dragging our father who was bleeding badly from his head. My brother told me not to look, but I could not help myself. My dad had a gash from the top of his forehead on the left, across his right eye, and over to his right ear. I had never seen anything so horrific in my life. I thought my daddy was going to die.
My brother and dad had been cutting firewood about six miles from our home. My dad cut a tree that fell upon another tree that acted like a slingshot to the first tree. The first tree came back, sliced my dad’s head open, and knocked him to the ground. My brother had stepped away for a minute when he heard Daddy’s chainsaw idling for too long. He went back, found Dad, dragged him to the truck five hundred yards away, and drove home. Daddy ended up needing over seventy stitches and was in the hospital for my birthday and Christmas.
On Monday, my teacher, Mrs. Nolan, could tell something was wrong. This was long before social media and instant news. She asked me to stay back at recess time, and I told her what happened. She let me cry on her shoulder that day and many more times during the three and a half weeks my dad was in the hospital recovering. She helped me make cards for him and she asked me every day how he was. She genuinely cared for me, my family, and our situation.
On Halloween, someone I did not recognize walked in wearing a baseball uniform. I thought we had a new student, so I began to introduce myself. It was my teacher, Mrs. Nolan. She was about five feet tall, always wore heels and makeup, and had very long blonde hair that was always fixed in a tall bun on her head. On this day, she managed to get all of her hair under a baseball cap and wore only eye black under her eyes as her makeup. She completely fooled every one of us. These two incidents were just a couple of reasons why I knew I wanted to be a teacher. She was always so enthusiastic and caring, loved her students, and loved teaching. My classmates and I seemed to always be engaged and happy to be there learning, and it was all due to Mrs. Nolan. I remember thinking this is how learning should always be, and I want to be a part of that. I want to bring joy as I educate someone.
When I was in eighth grade, I was going back to her class during my study hall to help when I passed by the special education room. I had never noticed the kids in that room before; had the room been there when I was in third grade? It was really more like a large broom closet, tucked away down a hall people passed through to get to the library or outdoors. I had a fleeting thought that maybe I would teach special education students instead of third-grade general education students, but I quickly dismissed the thought, thinking I would feel too sorry for “those” kids and never have high expectations for them to learn.
In high school, I passed by the special education classrooms in that building more frequently and had some classes with “those” kids in them. In tenth grade, I volunteered at a Special Olympics track-and-field day with a group of classmates from my high school. It was a great day, and I remember thinking how amazing some of the athletes were. I thought how nice it was to have something like this for them. Again, I dismissed the thought of being a special education teacher.
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I was not sure I could handle being in a classroom every day, nor did I want to attend college full-time. My solution was to become an aide in the district where I had been a student, while I took a few college classes each semester at the local community college. I was so happy when my first assignment was working as an aide with Mrs. Nolan, the very woman who inspired my desire to be a teacher. I was also assigned part of the day to a second-grade teacher, Mrs. Dewling. In each classroom I was considered a Title 1 aide, which meant I worked with kids who struggled to read as fluently as their classmates or had trouble understanding what they read.
For two years I worked for these teachers, and I saw how they treated the students who learned differently. They had high expectations, they loved each student no matter what their learning level, they treated each student justly, and they each had great advice about strategies for me to use with the students. I really enjoyed working with the kids who learned differently and was amazed at how hard they worked compared to their peers.
The teachers trusted me and depended on me, and even though I did not yet have a college degree, they treated me with respect and as a fellow educator. It was such a great feeling. The lesson of how they treated me has stayed with me to this day, and I have worked hard to pay it forward to everyone I work with. I knew I could handle being in a general education classroom of my own. I was ready to finish college and become a second- or third-grade general education teacher.
In autumn 1990, I met an amazing man whom I married in spring 1992. He was in the United States Air Force and stationed at a base near my home. He encouraged me to finish the degree I started in 1989 at the junior college. In spring 1993, I finished my associate of arts (AA) degree from the junior college and enrolled full-time the following fall at a university, declaring my major as education. When I enrolled, the counselor asked if I wanted to double major in education and special education, and again I said no, unsure I would do well working with special-needs students.
During the fall semester, I became very ill and could not finish the term. Before it was time to enroll for spring classes, we found out my husband was being transferred to England in summer 1994. Not knowing if I would ever make it back to this same university to finish my degree, I did not enroll for the spring semester. While I was excited for the adventure of moving to England, I was heartbroken my dream might not happen.
In July 1994, we moved to Royal Air Force Alconbury, Huntingdonshire, England. We soon found a wonderful English home in a town in Cambridgeshire. We had a lovely garden in the back with a very cute fish pond attached to our patio. As an added bonus, our garden butted up to the primary school. Shortly after we moved in, the students arrived for the fall term, and the school administration accepted my offer to volunteer. I worked with a wonderful teacher, Miss Mickie, who taught Year 3 and 4 students.
At the same time, I volunteered at the Department of Defense Dependent School (DoDDS) on base while I filled out the paperwork to be a substitute or an aide. I was a substitute aide the most often in a first-grade classroom, which led me to conclude I now wanted to teach first, second, or third-grade general education students. My associate’s degree qualified me to be a substitute teacher in the DoDD school, and one day I subbed in a fourth-grade classroom. I left that day thinking I never wanted to teach any class above third grade.
In spring 1996, I was called to be a substitute aide in a pre-K classroom at the DoDD school. This was an all-day pre-K with a nap in the afternoon. I was assigned to one student that day. I was told this little boy, Jordan, was “quite the handful,” and his last aide had quit because they did not know how to handle him. During the morning, I was kicked, hit, scratched, screamed at, an