My Respected Teacher Essay Contest

The view is blurry – the camera is scanning the school’s concrete quad at ground level, focusing on masses of feet walking, running; two feet crossing one over the other; one foot standing with the other foot slung out. Overhead, muffled voices are heard, each chattering about a different subject: Mr. Hall’s chemistry test, the pop quiz in Spanish, the fight over the weekend, the party tonight, who just asked who to the dance, where so-and-so is going to college. The camera rushes on through the crowd of blur, halts at a single pair of sneakers, then pans up on a boy sitting alone, silent. This is JJ. He has a brain tumor.

Everyday I put together the school’s televised news. I report on concerts, pep rallies, sporting events with cheering crowds. I film, edit, produce, and anchor, and just lately it occurred to me that everything I cover is loud.

JJ is not loud. He therefore is not “newsworthy,” and so he becomes invisible. His voice broke three years ago, when he looked in the mirror and saw one of his eyes swinging outward. His parents thought, as parents would, that this was eye fatigue, caused by their fourteen-year-old sitting in front of computer and video games too often.

The truth was scarier. An MRI pinpointed pineal germinoma, and his strange eye activity was just the first sign of a grotesque conglomeration of cells growing behind his optic nerve.

JJ was too old for the pediatric wards and too young for the adult, so he spent the next three years bouncing between the two, getting the best of intentions and sometimes the worst of care. A clumsy female nurse getting tripped and ripped the intravenous pick line out of his arm. A male nurse talked all night about his love life: “He actually kept me up until five in the morning telling me how his girlfriend doesn’t respect him,” said JJ. “I was half asleep, saying, ‘Please leave.’” Pressure in JJ’s brain affected his gross motor skills and when he walked, he dragged one foot. Chemotherapy took his hair. Doctors put a patch over his wandering eye. All the while JJ strove to maintain a normal teenage life.

Today he is seventeen, and that teenage life disappeared long ago. Kids he once considered his friends now make comments like, “There goes Captain One Eye.” JJ remains silent and instead, he chooses to express himself in another way: through art, angry art. One of his pieces, “Broken Lives, Shattered Dreams” has an emotional effect that cannot quite be explained on paper. From the outside, the piece is a refrigerator-size, very white plywood box that stands upright. It has a hinged door with a bent metal handle and light switch, with an electrical wire running down the rear.

Many who see the box say that it is empty, because it is, sort of. Inside it is painted pure black and lined with pieces of smashed mirror. A clear, bare light bulb hangs down from a cord. Hands with horny fingernails reach at you from the walls, some hands clutching crumpled tin cans. If you are brave enough to step inside and close the door behind you, you are instantly claustrophobic, shut up inside a world of pain, surrounded by grasping fingers and stared at by your own splintered reflection.

“I try to incorporate meanings and messages.” When JJ finally cracks his shell to tell even a part of his story, there is little he says, and yet much that he exudes. His voice is quiet and he tires easily, but his vehemence comes through, and his longing to get back into the art studio to express the pain. JJ knows he is broken, and knows that peers to confide in are a luxury he doesn’t have.

“If somebody feels that it is a burden to be your friend, then that friendship is not worth it. Fiund somebody who cares about you enough to really make an effort,” JJ says. “The only real friends I have now are grown-ups, and they act like they are my older brothers or sisters. If somebody can’t totally love you like family, they are not going to be there when you are sick, or get too old. Family never leaves you.”

At least he has real family to judge by.

My camera is moving again. In the lens are more feet: feet in white shoes running around on white linoleum floors. The first auditory impression is silence, and then faint beeping and muffled voices over an intercom. We enter inches above the floor into a pale blue room with a green vinyl chair and a hospital bed. The camera angle jumps up and zooms in on painted toenails. Seventee-year-old Rolanda is in the bed, her thin legs sticking out from underneath the rumpled cotton blanket. She tries to whisper, “”hi,” but coughs and coughs.

Once upon a time, her voice worked. At age seven, Rolanda threw herself over a casket and screamed through tears, “I didn’t get to say goodbye!” Her aunt, the only parent she had ever know, was dead of cancer. For the next eight years, Rolanda ricocheted among parents, or in any case, no parents who cared. At last, fifteen years old and a child of the court, Rolanda was diagnosed with cancer of her own. As liver cancer ate her alive, she kept faith: faith that she would make it to her 18th birthday, faith that when the final day came, she would be going home to God.

When time was sinding down and she could not physically stand long enough to hold a job flipping burgers, Rolanda and I started work together, creating a website with words of hope and advice for kids dealing with catastrophic illness. She reached dying kids on their level with her straight, strong language:

There may be someone out there in the world a step away from giving up. If that’s how you’re feeling, I just want you to know that I understand. I have liver cancer, and I am in and out of the hospital because the cancer is now in my lungs and I have trouble breathing. It’s hard, and it hurts to know that I have to live with this disease for the rest of my life. I think about giving up. When I really start thinking seriously about it, I always remember the outcome. I wouldn’t be the survivor that God wants me to be.

I’m signing off now. See you tomorrow.

God Bless, Miss Rolanda

Her words break my heart. See you tomorrow? She wrote firmly, as if they were not dying, leaving no doubt that everyone would be online when the next dawn came.

Now Rolanda sits all alone in her UCLA hospital room, and when she goes home, if she goes home, it will be to a foster house. She physically has no voice, but she still distributes hope and love to the world through her keyboard. Rolanda believes in her heart that she will pass from this life to more life, and in the meantime she lives happily.

My camera is moving one last time, panning down from Rolanda’s feet to my own. The two pedicures are identical, hers and mine each carefully dabbed with flowers on the big toes. My feet, though, generally fit in with the crowd, and it is rare to see them on the ground alone. What do broken voices and lonely feet mean to me?

As I edit together my videotape, this is what it shows: Life is meant to live happily. It is so short, so short. Whether we are sick right now or not, we must take advantage of time, because we all die one day, some of us sooner that others. In rough times, there is tremendous emotional energy, and all that built-up energy inside has to go somewhere. Surrounded by voices that say hurtful things, JJ lives for the company of his art and then displays his art to teach compassion to the world. In a world where comforting voices have not been present, Rolanda lives for the company of others on our website and displays her writing to comfort others.

Their feet remain lonely, outside of the crowd, so most of all, my video shows me this: When voices are broken, sometimes it is better to listen with my eyes.

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McKinney, Texas – Before he walked into Laura Smith’s AVID class at McKinney High School four years ago, Jaime Tamayo was content with his academic aspirations. But, his first conversation with Smith changed that—and fundamentally altered the trajectory of Jaime’s academic career.

So, when the Barnes & Noble My Favorite Teacher Essay Contest showed up on his radar recently, Jaime saw an opportunity to honor the person who had impacted his life in such a significant way.

Laura Smith and Jaime Tamayo at the Barnes & Noble My Favorite Teacher Essay Contest local winner award presentation.

“Before I came across this memorable teacher,” Jaime wrote, “I never sought to challenge myself by taking upper-level courses. I never looked for ways to engage in new activities or opportunities, and I didn’t believe it was necessary for me to set new goals or higher standards. I was completely unaware of the true value of an education.

“The first conversation I had with [Ms. Smith] was her telling me I needed to get a schedule change because I wasn’t taking any upper-level courses. I was afraid of those classes. I didn’t believe I was capable of surviving in that type of environment, but she still forced me to do it.

“And, now as a high school senior, I realize how crucial that moment was because it was there where I discovered the potential I had within me, where I left my comfort zone and became more ambitious, more open to challenges and to setting higher standards for myself.

“It was thanks to that moment that I’m able to have a high GPA that reflects the hard work I put into all the upper-level courses I took through high school. And, because of them, I can now proudly say that I’ve been accepted to several universities.”

As it turned out, Jaime’s heartfelt tribute won the local round of the contest, and on Thursday, April 9, he had the opportunity to read it at the Creekwalk Barnes & Noble location in Plano in front of Smith, some teachers from MHS, his mom and anyone else in the store who wanted to listen. He and Smith each received a bagful of books and gift certificates along with a certificate of recognition.

Now, Jaime’s essay will move to the regional round of the competition, and if it wins, will garner a $500 prize for Smith. The national winning essay receives $5,000 for the teacher and a $500 gift card for the student.

“I am honored and humbled Jaime chose me for his favorite teacher,” said Smith. “It has been a privilege to support him along the way. His determination and hard work have led to his academic and personal success, and I am proud to have taught such a kind, dedicated, honest, respectful and overall amazing student.”

Where he was once content to take the easy path through high school, Jaime is now headed to the University of North Texas with plans to pursue a career in sports marketing.

“[Ms. Smith] taught me that I have the same opportunities others have, and…thanks to her, I’m now on the proper path to success, looking to further my education at a university and, hopefully, one day make all of my dreams come true.”

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