I’ve always dreamed big. Ever since I can remember, I have had ambitious goals. I have tried to do more and do better than what other people thought was possible. This drive, this ambition, this motivation that stems from somewhere deep inside of me has always existed. This summer, in the midst of extreme personal turmoil, I almost lost it. I almost lost the spark that drives me because I lost a person who was one of my biggest cheerleaders. The tinders of my former self remained hidden under layers of ash, burned from painful experiences that had accumulated over the last two years, but they were hidden because there was no one there to re-ignite them. As this school year progressed, I realized that I was floundering, in the words of Charlotte Kasl, having lost sight of what I wanted to do with my life. As I started to pick up the pieces of my life and start truly living again, being goal-oriented and dream-driven, I realized how many possible opportunities I had awaiting me to create the change I’ve always envisioned.
I acted on the re-kindled desire to create change, and attended a political leadership conference that armed me with the tools, network and know-how to run for a political office. I spent a long time reflecting on the issues that were important to me, the change I knew needed to happen, and the communities in which I could see that change having the greatest effect. The place I came back to is here: my current community, where I have planted roots and invested over the past three years. I have developed friendships with people younger than me, my age and up to twice my age. I am claimed by three different families in the community, who love and treat me like I’m one of their own. I have poured my heart and soul into teaching the kids of this community. I’ve tried to not only teach them my content, but to shape them into excellent citizens who have strong values, strong mindsets and even stronger ties to their Appalachian roots. I have worked hard to ensure that many new pathways of opportunities were open to them and I have worked one-on-one with many of them to complete applications that would prove to be life-changing. I believe in each and every one of them, and I see the future of Appalachia and this community in them. That is why I want to run for office here: for the future citizens, for the current children, and for what each and every one of them deserves. I may not understand the inner workings of the political system of this community, but I do understand the issues currently facing educators and students. I know what I want to be true for the education system in this community, and more importantly, I know what my students want to be true for their education. My students see the disconnect between the decisions being made for them and what is truly in their best interest. Being an elected leader in the community would give me a chance to speak for the students, for the future of the community, and for the educators.
Coming back from the conference, I was excited about the possibility of being able to create real, tangible change for all the children in my community through an elected position. As I began to speak with people from my community, an ice-cold bucket of doubt water was poured all over me. “They’d go for your jugular.” “You’re not from around here.” “You should get out and leave, you can’t make any changes here.” “You just don’t know how it works around here.” “You don’t stand a chance.” I began to doubt myself, began to look around at everyone I saw in town whom I did not know, began to believe all of their negative talk about my chances of ever changing anything in this town.
I called my mom and let her know how upset I was about what everyone was telling me about my chances for being elected in my community. Her response blew me away: “Don’t listen to them. Of course you can run for office and win. So what if people say it’s too hard? People have said that about everything you’ve ever tried to do. We go big or don’t go at all. Those people telling you not to do it must never have seen what you can do when you put your mind to it.”
I don’t say all this to say I suddenly think I can win a race based on one pep-talk by my mom, but to highlight what is so great about the people in our lives who are our cheerleaders. They are the ones who will pick us up when we fall in the mud, lift us back onto our own two feet, wipe us off and tell us that better days are ahead. Our cheerleaders hold an unwavering belief in our potential, no matter how rough we may seem at that moment, and can envision all that we can become. Our cheerleaders understand that while they can’t achieve our goals for us, they can instill the beliefs inside of us that we can do whatever we want to do.
As a teacher, I am that cheerleader. So are you. We are young, enthusiastic, idealistic and sometimes naive, but those are assets we can use to impact the lives of our students. They are constantly faced with the onslaught of Debbie Downers, telling them that they aren’t good enough, won’t ever be anything, and will never leave their community. The media portrays them as redneck hillbillies. The New York Times writes articles encouraging everyone in their community leave. Hopelessness and helplessness pervade the spirit of many of those they look up to.
My kids, our kids, need a cheerleader. Call us crazy, call us whatever you want, but at the end of the day, we see the possibilities in our kids and we do any and everything that we can to get them to where they want to be. Each and every one of our students deserves at least one adult every day who seems the best possible outcome for their lives, who understands and appreciates their authentic selves, and who pushes them to believe that whatever they want to do, they can do. No matter how old we get, we can always remember our cheerleaders. We remember what they said to us, how they helped us, but more importantly, we remember the way it made us feel when they said “I believe in you. I know you can do it.”
My mom has been the biggest cheerleader throughout my life, but there have been countless teachers who have aided her in cheering me on (not to mention the steady support of all of my family and friends!): Dr. Crouch. Dr. Allen. Dr. Dummer. Dr. Honeycutt. Dr. Sibal. Dr. Campbell. Dr. Miller. Mrs. Thompson. Mrs. Coward. Dr. Whitfield. Mrs. Lucas. Dr. Gambill. Dr. A.G. Taylor. Mrs. Wilkinson. Mrs. Wilson. Mrs. Underwood back in the first grade. My list of cheerleaders could go on and on. One in particular, my MTLD, has been cheering me on since day one in Teach For America, and has believed in me and my potential before I even saw that I could make an impact on a single student. The example that he set for me is something that I am trying to remember and take into my classroom every day, regardless of any personal turmoil I may endure: Our kids need cheerleaders, and we may be the only one they have. Don’t let a day go by without cheering them on and letting them know that you believe in their potential to do anything they set their mind to.
Who knows if I will run for elected office. That no longer seems nearly as important as the drive I have for the big task I have ahead of me tomorrow: being the biggest cheerleader for every single student I have and have had. Thanks Mom, for setting such a great example of how to cheer all of my students on. I know that November is one of the hardest months to be a teacher, but I will put my happiest face on every day and ground myself in where I know my kids will be in the next year, five years, decade, and lifetime with the help of their cheerleaders.