In another lifetime, I was an elementary school teacher.
My first year, I was assigned to teach Kindergarten at a Title 1 school where 80 percent of the students received free or reduced lunches.
It was a far cry from my privileged, sheltered, middle class upbringing.
The boy who changed my life
On the first day, I met Tristan.
Tristan was so sweet and shy. He did not want to let go of his mom. Big tears welled up in his eyes as I tried to convince him that it was going to be OK. I helped him put his backpack away and brought him over to his seat.
I had put paper, crayons and pencils out for the students to draw with while everyone got settled. Tristan looked at the materials on the table, and his face crumbled. He started sobbing.
I knelt down beside his chair and soon found out the reason for his distress: he didn’t know how to hold a pencil.
Our tough year
He and I both struggled that year. He cried the first few weeks as he was challenged to learn how to write his name. I worked with him one on one, and several times a week a tutor came in to help him.
I cried almost every day that year because I was so overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching those Kindergarten babies. I considered quitting at least once a week — I felt like I was in way over my head, and I had extreme doubts about my abilities. By far, it was (and still is) the hardest job I've ever had.
But by the end of the year, Tristan had not only mastered his letters, he had the most beautiful handwriting of any of his classmates. He had blossomed into a smiling, confident student.
A new perspective
I made it through that year, too. I’d learned so much about myself and been challenged in ways I never imagined.
I had a new appreciation for my privileged growing up years. My sister and I never had to worry about where our next meal was coming from. We had access to books and after school activities and nice clothes. We started Kindergarten knowing how to read and how to write our names. Going to college was not just expected, it was assumed.
My teaching stint didn’t last long — I taught for a few more years before going back to PR. But Tristan is one of the students who I remember the most and who made the biggest impression on me.
The student as the teacher
Last week I was cleaning out some old files and came across Tristan’s before and after writing samples. I saved them all these years as a reminder of the impact one person can have on another.
Sure, I know I helped Tristan progress academically. But the biggest growth was my own.
Tristan taught me that even when things are hard (and seem impossible), not to give up. That we are bigger than our circumstances. And that sometimes you can’t see the progress of your small, baby steps until you’re on the other side.