Since a very young age, I looked up to my teachers. I knew that more than anything I wanted to encourage and mold young minds. I started my young adult life by studying and becoming an elementary school teacher. It was a dream for me to work with children and I wanted to make an impact on both their education and their lives.
I taught first grade at an inner city school. These adorable and innocent 6 and 7 year olds taught me so much about their challenging lives. They opened my eyes to the difficulties that children from the inner city face growing up at a socioeconomic disadvantage.
Most days the students would come to school on an empty stomach, so we provided them with a free breakfast meal. Most children welcome holidays and days off from school but not my students. Some were frightened of their home life and never wanted to go home. Some children were kept awake all night by alcoholic parents and they would come to school needing some sleep. Other children did not have any support at home hence making their daily lives very difficult.
I will never forget my first week of teaching these first graders. One student named Alan came to school looking so exhausted. He had dark circles under his eyes and he was having difficulty staying awake. He asked me if he could take a nap. Of course, I told him yes.
It was important that I never left these children alone, as they were sometimes unruly. Per my rules, at bathroom time I would chaperone my 28 students in a single file to the restroom. At that point, Alan was sound asleep but I knew I had to wake him and make sure he was part of our group. Alan was hard to wake up but I was able to rouse him and get him in the line for the bathroom break.
As we all made our way to the bathroom, Alan started walking very crookedly- almost like a drunken sailor. I was startled by his inability to function and his extreme drowsiness so I asked my superintendent to call an ambulance. The ambulance came quickly, thank God, and rushed Alan to the emergency room where they discovered he had overdosed on his mother’s Valium pills. They pumped out his stomach and saved his life.
I will never forget this experience as Alan could have died in my classroom if it were not for my restroom rules. I was devastated by this experience and my heart broke for this poor child. He had managed to ingest enough Valium to overdose unbeknownst to his family. It was in this moment that I realized my mission in life.
This event showed me clearly how vulnerable some of these kind and innocent children were. I learned so much about their way of life and it was a total eye opener for me to hear their everyday stories of their parents drinking, leaving them alone at night, going to jail, drug abuses and so much more. It was in that moment that I decided to make it my mission to help children like Alan.
I remember at the end of this teaching year I was astounded at how much these children, in spite of their extreme difficulties at home, could learn and grow. They ended up learning how to read, write and displayed extraordinary math skills.
Looking back on this I realize that it was my most accomplished teaching year. These students had difficulties at home yet they were able to put everything aside in order to learn and succeed. I realized at that moment that I would always try however I could to teach and help vulnerable children.
I have since spent my adult years as a founding director of KIPP Academy. We had 2 schools when I started (one in NYC and one in Houston) and after 7 years we grew to 85 schools around the country. I am proud to say that there are now more than 200 KIPP schools around the country serving underprivileged children from kindergarten – 12th grade.
I am also now a development director for Cristo Rey Brooklyn high school. We serve underprivileged students in 9th- 12th grade. EVERY student in our school of 320 students graduates from this school and EVERY student goes to college on a full scholarship. This is life changing for these students as no one in their family has ever even graduated from high school. We are the only parachute out of their desperate situations and they are all eager to get out- given an opportunity and a nurturing, scholastic environment.
I feel that if one can offer a helping hand in this world, then our lives were not lived in vain. Sometimes even the smallest acts of kindness or generosity can have a lasting impact on someone and I believe that if more people reached out to help others, the world would be a better place.