60: Open Your Books

60: Open Your Books

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Open Your Books

Never, never, never give up.

~Winston Churchill

From the time I could line up my dolls on the sofa and play school, I wanted to be a teacher. “Open your books,” I would instruct my teddy bear, dolls, and sundry stuffed animals. Then I would regale them with whatever new thing I had just learned. Every grade accomplished during my own education intensified that desire. From cursive writing to “new math,” from home economics to world literature, I knew I wanted to join the ranks of the magical people who made the world come alive for me. I wanted to be a teacher.

The most inspirational teacher I ever had was my high school biology teacher, Coach Hogan. He was all business on the football field but pure passion in the classroom. Biology came alive in his class (no pun intended, though I think he’d like the joke). He opened my eyes to a world beyond the reaches of my troubled home life. He made me believe that science was fun and intended for everyone. I decided to follow him and become a biology teacher myself.

But how? Dreams and aspirations are one thing, money for tuition is quite another. My father was disabled so finances were challenging. Though I graduated seventh in my class of 400 and was accepted at a state university, I couldn’t afford to go. In fact, no one in my immediate family had ever graduated from college. But I believed I was meant to be a teacher. My heart and my childhood dolls told me so. I had to find a way to make it happen.

I won a partial scholarship but it wasn’t enough to cover all the tuition. Then my parents offered me my portion of my father’s Social Security disability. I could live at home for free and use the money to attend the local junior college. I was humbled by the depth of their sacrifice because the dollar amount was almost a third of their income. However, I still needed more to cover books and supplies. Undeterred, I found a part-time job and enrolled in classes, believing it was meant to be.

Before long, my life consisted of little more than school, studying and work. I decided to try and finish my degree in three years — the sooner to have a job and paycheck. So I took large class loads, sometimes over twenty credits per semester, and continued my studies through the summer sessions. I hid my textbooks under the cash register at work so I could study when there weren’t any customers. Sleep deprived, I napped on my break. All the while I pushed forward, seeing myself in the classroom, imagining my interaction with students, and believing I could make it happen through faith and hard work.

Even dates with my boyfriend entailed trips to the library or studying at home. There was little time to waste. During spring break, the extra hours available for work were too precious to spend in the sun, though I lived in a coastal beach town known worldwide as a major spring break destination. When I graduated from junior college and transferred to a four-year university, the higher tuition meant I needed more funds. So I added a work-study regimen to my schedule, cleaning test tubes and setting up labs in the science department. Sometimes I felt like a marathon runner without a finish line. But then I would remember that every dirty test tube I cleaned meant I was one step closer to my dream. I couldn’t wait to start making magic in my own classroom.

Because of my student teaching requirement, my graduation month was December. I’d have a few months to work as a substitute teacher in the local area before the schools started hiring for the next academic year. It seemed a great opportunity to scope out the job market. I had never heard the term “RIF” before.

“County Teachers Affected by a Reduction in Force,” read the local headline. In short, there was a drop in student population and many teachers were laid off. No new teachers would be hired until all those who lost their jobs were placed. I couldn’t believe it. Disheartened but determined, I continued substituting, hoping a break would come my way. I took a long-term substitute position in biology at a private school and felt like I had found a home. When I learned they were planning to replace the biology teacher I had subbed for, I was sure the position was meant for me. I could see the pieces falling into place. I could see myself in the halls. I could feel the chalk in my hand. This is where my journey was leading. However, the principal had other ideas.

“You’re too young,” he told me during my interview. “This last teacher was young and had a lot of discipline problems. We want someone older — with more experience.”

“I don’t believe age determines how well someone can conduct a class,” I responded quickly. “It’s about technique and skill,” I replied. And magic, I whispered to myself.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “My mind is made up. Good luck to you.”

I cried all the way to work that night and was in the break room trying to pull myself together when a new employee walked in. Her name was April and it was my job to train her. We introduced ourselves and got busy learning how to take catalog orders over the phone. In the moments between customers I shared my feelings. I told her how much I wanted to teach. I told her how much I loved that private school and how disappointed I was to be turned down because of my age. I told her I was having a hard time believing I had worked so hard for my dream only to be denied. I told her about the magic.

A few nights later a man walked into the store and April introduced him to me as her father, Reid Hughes. We chatted about the store and how quickly April was learning her new job. He casually mentioned that April had told him I wanted to teach. I assured him that was true and shared some of my thoughts with him. He left after a few minutes and I thought April was lucky to have such a nice father.

The next morning my phone rang. It was the principal of the private school calling to offer me the biology position.

“Are you kidding?” I was dumbfounded.

“No,” he assured me. “I’m not kidding. It seems you made quite an impression on the chairman of our Board of Directors.”

“Who, h-h-how?” I stammered.

“His name is Reid Hughes, and he wants you to have this job.”

I was speechless.

A few weeks later I stood in the door of my classroom, welcoming my students to their first day of school. When they were settled, I picked up a piece of chalk, walked to the board and wrote my name.

“Let the magic begin,” I whispered to myself as I turned back to greet their expectant faces.

“Open your books,” I said with a smile.

~Liz Graf

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