97: The Teacher Who Believed in Me

97: The Teacher Who Believed in Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Teacher Who Believed in Me

It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.

~Author Unknown

I remember those days as a young child as if they were yesterday. The alarm clock would go off in the morning, and I would lie in bed dreading school. My mother knew the routine all too well. She’d come into my room and coax me out of bed. With much debate and a million excuses why I couldn’t go to school, I would reluctantly crawl out of bed with a sick feeling in my stomach thinking about the day ahead of me.

In the early 1970s, I went to Public School 95 in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. My classes were overcrowded, and I felt lost among the many students. In grade school, I was painfully shy. I didn’t raise my hand because I was terrified I would stutter or say the wrong answer. It had happened in the past, and I replayed the moments in my mind when the kids laughed at my awkwardness.

To make matters worse, I was extremely tall and lanky. At 5’6”, I towered over my classmates. I would slump to make myself appear shorter until my back and legs ached. Every day, I was taunted. “How’s the weather up there?” they’d say with a giggle. I was also called the “Jolly Green Giant.” I was anything but jolly.

I kept everything bottled up because I was too ashamed to tell my parents that I was being teased in school. My grades were dropping, and I was failing many subjects. My teacher had warned me that if my grades didn’t improve, she would have no choice but to have me repeat fourth grade. I was devastated. Now I’ll feel even more stupid, and I’ll be even taller than the rest of the younger kids, I thought to myself. Just the idea of getting left back made matters worse.

It was January, just after winter break, and I was giving my mother a particularly hard time while getting ready for school. I begged, “Please let me stay home just one day. I promise I’ll help you clean up the apartment!” I tried to bribe her, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. She was having none of it. Off to school I went.

I was sitting at my desk when a tall, willowy woman walked into our classroom. She had a kind face and a warm smile. “Good morning!” She seemed to light up the room. “My name is Mrs. Gustafson. I will be your teacher for the remaining part of the school year.” She went on to tell us that our teacher had to take a sudden leave of absence for a family emergency. I wasn’t too sure what that meant back then, but from the moment I saw Mrs. Gustafson, I had a good feeling about her.

Mrs. Gustafson told us that she would learn everybody’s name by the end of her first day. When it was my turn to tell her my name, I mumbled “Dorann” softly. She looked me straight in the eyes and said equally as quietly, “Can you say your name a little louder?” After I repeated my name a bit louder, Mrs. Gustafson smiled broadly. “What a pretty name. So different and unique,” she said. For the first time in school, I felt special.

Later in the day, when we were lined up for recess, Mrs. Gustafson came over to me and bent down to whisper in my ear, “Stand up straight and tall. Be proud of your height.” As I looked up at her, she winked. She understood! In my young eyes, she had to be at least ten feet tall!

The next morning, when my alarm clock went off, I got out of bed on my own, without prompting from my mom. I ran to the bathroom to brush my teeth as my mom sprinted behind me. Quite puzzled, she asked me if I was feeling okay. “Mom, Mrs. Gustafson said we’re going to do something that is a lot of fun today in school!” To this day, I’ll never forget the shocked expression on my mom’s face.

That day, our math lesson turned into a bubblegum contest. We were divided into three teams. Each student was given a piece of bubblegum. The goal was to see which team blew the biggest bubbles! Mrs. Gustafson assigned a few students to measure the height of the bubbles with a ruler. After all of the bubbles were measured and documented, it was up to each team to tally all the measurements to see which team had the highest score. I was eager to add up our score, even though math was my weakest subject. To my delight, our team came in second place. We all got colorful stickers that said “Good Job!” I couldn’t have felt more excited or proud.

I started to like school more each day. In just a few short weeks, I loved school! I looked forward to seeing what Mrs. Gustafson had in store for us. She made learning fun, with games and small incentives. But, most of all, she believed in me, so I started to believe in myself. I learned to stand up tall and be proud of my height. I participated and raised my hand when I knew the answer. I spoke louder. I wasn’t afraid to make a mistake for fear of being laughed at.

Although I was sad to see the school year end, I left fourth grade with the confidence and tools I needed to face fifth grade in the fall. Not only was I promoted, but I passed all my subjects with B’s and even an A. I will never forget Mrs. Gustafson. She made a shy, gawky young girl believe in herself.

~Dorann Weber

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