Teachers were often my surrogate parents growing up. Even during the years of elementary school when I was always acting up, looking for attention, and talking way too much, I looked to teachers for support and love and, of course, education.
I can remember my fourth grade teacher telling me, after a characteristic incident of getting in trouble, “If you don’t shape up, you’re going to be in deep water.” She added, “Do you know what that means?” And I did.
Another time, I was talking with my guidance counselor. She asked why I kept getting sent to the principal’s office and why I didn’t behave better. In what must have been an entirely irritating answer to hear from a fifth grader, I said, “I don’t know…I guess it’s fate.” To which she said, “I believe you make your own fate.” I never forgot this.
Later, after I turned the corner to becoming a good student in seventh grade, teachers often told me things to encourage me. I can remember my English teacher in high school saying, “If you could spell, you’d be dangerous.” For this particular woman, this actually was a statement of affection and high respect.
But the best thing any teacher ever told me was something written in my high school yearbook my senior year. I had my share of drama, and perhaps more than most as my home life was often chaotic. My math teacher, Ms. Huckabee, was such a calming influence. She almost always had a smile, was at the same time down-to-earth and elegant, and was also good at explaining concepts of algebra and geometry. I admired her greatly.
On one of the last days of school, I asked her to sign my yearbook. She wrote, “First of all, I’m already taken or I would propose, but my daughter will be in the market not too many years from now and I hope you’ll still be available, because I’m going to put her on your scent! And I’ll not let her marry just anybody! Seriously (and I am serious), I think you’re a terrific person, and I’m grateful for the chance to know you. Please stay in touch next year (so I’ll know your whereabouts when the time comes!); I’m expecting big things of you! I hope you’ll find much success and happiness — I know no one who deserves it more.”
Everyone writes nice things in high school annuals (or at least they did, back when they were produced). But these comments helped me through difficult times. Over the subsequent years, there were occasions when I felt my family’s pedigree would hold me back, when I thought I carried a stigma of Southern redneck. (Over time, I got over this belief.) When those times came, I would think of Ms. Huckabee’s remarks.
We all want to be known and valued. Ms. Huckabee had come to know me over the course of two years and though I didn’t realize it, she had come to see me as someone worthy of her daughter. I can think of no higher compliment.
I never saw Ms. Huckabee after graduation and I heard she left the teaching profession not long after I had her as a teacher. Still, she had a profound impact on my psyche.