Sometimes a teacher is more than just a teacher.
Biology class was over, but I stayed behind until the other tenth graders had left and I was alone with the teacher. “Mrs. Oliver?” I asked timidly. “Could I see my grades for the semester?”
School was important to me, and Mrs. Oliver was the best teacher I’d ever had. Better than any teachers back in Oklahoma, or here in North Carolina. She’d made science—a subject I’d always struggled with—fun. When I didn’t understand something she stood patiently by my desk until I did. I wanted to make her proud of me.
“The last time you asked it was an eighty-eight,” she said, checking her grade book. “I said you could do better—and you proved me right. You brought it up to an A.” I was so happy I could barely speak, but Mrs. Oliver wasn’t finished. “Duke University holds a summer academy,” she said. “I nominated you and just found out you’ve been accepted.”
For a split second I was on top of the world. Then reality crashed back down on top of me. “Mrs. Oliver, I can’t go to college,” I said, my cheeks heating with shame. “I have two kids.”
Everybody in school knew I wasn’t like them. I got up before dawn every day to take my babies to the day-care center before school. Then I picked them up on the way home. I did my homework in between changing diapers. There was no way I could make it to college. My mother had sent me to live with my father, and he predicted I’d never finish high school.
“Kim, you’re college material,” said Mrs. Oliver. She sounded almost surprised that I didn’t agree. “I don’t want you to miss this opportunity.”
“I’ll think about it,” I promised, but I already knew it was hopeless.
As I left Mrs. Oliver’s room, I remembered a day last year. It was near the end of ninth grade, while I was pregnant with my second child. I watched a girl in front of me in algebra class pass a note to her friend. Then I scribbled my own note. Not to another student. I had no time for friends.
My note was to God: Please help, I wrote, just as I had every day. The baby’s father had abandoned me. My father had ordered me to drop out of school. Mom was far away back in Oklahoma. There was nowhere else to turn.
I headed down a quiet street and climbed the well-worn concrete steps of the little church. The same steps I’d climbed every day since learning I was pregnant again. I fished my note out of my algebra book and slid it through the mail slot in the church door. It was the most logical way I could think of to get my prayer to God.
As I turned to go, I noticed a sign by the door. No TRESPASSING. Strange. No trespassing at a church? I stepped back and took a good look at the building for the first time: peeling paint, weather damaged door, weeds in the flower beds. This church was abandoned! Just like me.
I ran all the way home, half-blinded by tears. All those desperate prayers I’d slid through the mail slot were just lying in a heap, unread.
Unanswered. I’d asked God for help and God wasn’t even home. I was on my own.
I was determined to stay in school as long as I could. With the help of a new public day care near my house, I convinced my father to let me continue after my second baby was born. I got good grades, followed all the rules. I never gave my father an excuse to make me quit. Mrs. Oliver’s class was the bright spot in my life. And now she wanted me to dream an impossible dream.
Of course my father laughed at the prospect of my attending a college summer program. Instead, my children and I went back to Oklahoma to live with my mother. When I graduated high school I worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. We were still only barely getting by.
One evening, after the kids were in bed, I lay down on the couch and propped up my feet, sore from a long shift as a waitress. I tried to focus on the news, but my eyelids were too heavy. I’ll just listen tonight, I thought.
“Today the President welcomed this year’s National Teacher of the Year recipient to the White House,” the announcer on the television said. “Mrs. Donna Oliver from Burlington, North Carolina.”
Donna Oliver? From North Carolina?
I opened my eyes and struggled to sit up. There she was. Mrs. Oliver! Shaking hands with the President! I felt a surge of pride for her. Then I heard her voice in my head. “Kim, you’re college material.”
It had been years since I’d thought about school, much less college. But seeing Mrs. Oliver on TV seemed like a sign. If the Teacher of the Year said I could do more with my life, maybe I ought to listen!
That fall, I enrolled in college. I worked out a deal so I could pay for it a little at a time, then got financial aid. I took morning classes while the kids were in school, getting myself there on a used 10-speed bike. I majored in biology, which is still my very favorite subject.
Sometimes in my classes I thought back on my days in high school, writing my desperate notes to God. Prayers I thought God couldn’t hear, but that he’d answered beyond the most impossible dreams.
I became a science teacher, like Mrs. Oliver. In my classes I look out for kids who need extra encouragement. I know that sometimes a teacher is more than just a teacher. Sometimes she’s an angel.
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Kimberly Jones has taught science for 12 years at Lawton High School in Oklahoma, the same school where she graduated herself. Her daughters grew up and served in the Army and the Air Force, so their education will be paid for with help from the GI Bill. Kim herself earned a master’s degree in 2011. No one is more proud of her success than her father. “Back when I was a teenager he just felt so overwhelmed with his own problems and, let’s face it, I wasn’t making things any easier,” she says. “He’s since asked my forgiveness for his attitude back then—and he’s more than earned that forgiveness through his loving support of me and his grandchildren.”