What did I want to be when I grew up? When I was little, my answer was a dentist or an astronaut. But, I was a child of the 1960s, a turbulent time to be a young African American girl in the south. There were neighborhoods I couldn’t live in and places I couldn’t eat. Like many who may be reading this piece, I lived the moments that were described in history books – and my chosen professions were long shots.
How did I become a teacher? I was one of those kids who asked LOTS of questions. In 8th grade history, I really got under my teacher’s skin – I wanted to know what led to certain events, what the connections were, why things happened the way they did. One day, as he was teaching a lesson, I asked a flurry of questions leading him to stop teaching and proclaim that I’d either be a lawyer or a teacher. I hadn’t considered teaching but on that day a door was opened. I can picture him today and I appreciate him!
But, he wasn’t my favorite teacher.
When I really #PictureATeacher, I think of Ms. Mason, my favorite teacher. She seemed so happy about teaching every day. What makes you come back every day? What is it about your job, I asked her, inquisitive as always? She once told me, “In high school, teachers see a vast change in students from ninth to twelfth grade. I love watching individuals turn into productive adults and knowing that I had a part in that success by offering them my best. “
That was powerful to me. I was in ninth grade and I thought, I’d like to have that kind of impact.
My first venture into teaching was summer school after freshman year. She gave me the chance to help her with summer school. That’s when I fell in love with teaching.
Why was she so great? Ms. Mason was recognized as being the most fun in a classroom. Children love her infectious laugh. She was serious when she needed to be but was also a prankster. For some reason, her endless energy came as a surprise. And, her thick Tennessee accent made her storytelling even more compelling.
Ms. Mason was more than good academically because as we know, teachers are committed to students and their learning. She was protective of me in a school where there weren’t many students of color. She treated me and my peers more like an adult than others did. I remember the day a school across town held a pep rally and a fire bomb exploded under the bleachers. Ms. Mason pulled me aside and explained what happened, discussing challenges of race, the impact of our actions and profoundly influenced me on that day, for the rest of my life.
She’s known me and my family my whole life. She knows my parents. My sister and brother-in-law taught alongside her. She was always there – during moments of impact – to listen and share her perspective. To this day, it’s Ms. Mason I picture when I #PictureATeacher.
I’m in touch with Ms. Mason to this day and when we meet and talk now, we pick up on our conversation as if there had been no interruption. She was among the first to offer congratulations when I took on my current role at the National Board.
Like the best teachers, Ms. Mason is the kind of person who helps give others a sense of self, a sense of confidence that you can face anything.
Ms. Mason profoundly impacted me and I appreciate her above all others. So, today I offer a deep and sincere thank you to Ms. Mason, my teacher and my friend.