I have a story to tell. A few years back, a student noticed a Washington University banner I had in my classroom. After learning that I had both my undergraduate and graduate degrees from this great school, he looked simultaneously impressed and befuddled. He cocked his head and asked “No offense, Ms. White, but if you have a degree from WashU, why would you become a teacher!?” The answer is simple: teachers change lives. Specifically, teachers changed my life.
I grew up in small-town Kentucky, where many folks had big dreams and impoverished realities. That was true for my family as well. We went two years without heat because the heater broke and my parents couldn’t afford to fix it. My siblings and I also received free-or-reduced lunch at school. For perspective of what that actually means: I could not afford to buy lunch at the normal cost of $1.20 and sometimes not at the reduced price of $0.40. Instead, our community’s tax dollars subsidized my lunch so that I was guaranteed to have at least one full meal a day. Adding into these struggles of poverty, my family had alcohol addiction issues to grapple with as well. That was my home life growing up.
For me, school was an escape from those realities of home; I felt understood and whole in a community that valued learning, curiosity, and questions. School recognized and valued my internal worth and, as a result, there became this potential pathway for my life different from the one my parents were on. My high school teachers imagined more possibilities for me than I ever imagined for myself: they invested in me by sponsoring activities and encouraging me to participate, researching and recommending extension programs, negotiating for funding support, writing so many letters on my behalf, and, on the whole, advocating for me in a way that my parents did not because they didn’t know why or how. No one in my extended family had ever gone to college before – it was unknown territory for us.
In fact, my parents tried to convince me NOT to go to college; my teachers convinced me I would never be happy otherwise. They made it clear that getting a college degree was both important and achievable, and they helped me manage the admissions and scholarship process. My teachers held the flashlight, shining into the darkness of my future, and helped me navigate out of poverty and uncertainty. Their hard work and faith in me meant I became the first college graduate in my extended family, and then the first with a professional degree. I am who I am because of them and I am extraordinarily in their debt. My life is a testament to the impact and power of teachers, who connect and build and inspire and push. There was never any question for me of what my career path should be or how best to change the world. Changing the world happens in the classroom, a place where lives can literally be transformed. Daily, I pay tribute to my own teachers by being here with you. That is why I teach. Thank you.