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Finding my voice from teachers

It is not an exaggeration to say that reading has saved my life more than once.

Growing up with a less than stable home life, books served as a consistent thread in the various homes I stayed throughout my childhood. Whether it was with my great aunt and uncle who became my parents, my biological mother, either of my grandmothers with whom I spent the most time with, or my nana, I could always count on time to read.

I owe my love for reading to two distinct strands of my life.

One was my collection of family members and their friends who taught me to love reading either at home or at my favorite table at my Grandmother’s diner.

The other source of my love for reading was my teachers.

In first grade, Mrs. Patterson showed me that my love for words could translate into something powerful for both my education and my life. I can still recall her telling me that while some kids would mock me for reading all of the time, it would pay off in the end.

When I entered second grade, our overcrowded school had to create a combined second and third grade class. As a student reading above grade level, I was placed in the combined room. I learned a lot from the experience, including how to defend myself from bullies. Fortunately, several third graders took me under their wings and taught me all they knew about being successful.

But it was middle school — those most difficult of school years — that taught me to love all aspects of education, and even to love how to serve.

In the 8th grade at Happy Valley School, I had the great fortune to have Cyndee Cain as my teacher. She was a young teacher, full of energy and charm, and she laughed more than any teacher I had ever had. More than her own wonderful abilities, it was her belief in her students that led to us believing in ourselves.

I credit a career focused on civic engagement to Mrs. Cain for a few reasons.

When I asked her why some people had so little, and frankly sometimes I was among them, she told me that it was our national shame but that some people were working hard to address it. This simple observation led me to begin to explore public service.

Second, Mrs. Cain was one of the first teachers who was deeply appreciative of our open-ended questions. She loved our inquisitive natures and rewarded our curiosity, leading to even greater curiosity.

I credit her for my own interest in community engagement which underscores all of the work of the Reach NC Voices project. Last week, a colleague noted that our work around civic engagement could best be described as trying to get more of us to raise our hand like a student might in a classroom. He spoke of a citizen as the student who raises his hand for the first time, perhaps even though the hand is trembling, and said it was our job to make sure that he was willing to speak out, to ask questions, and to be curious.

Mrs. Cain taught me my first lesson in embracing curiosity and encouraged me to “raise my hand.”

I did not want to leave her class, but her gift to me was The Little Prince. The classic taught me a lesson I have clung to for years, through many tough times.

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

And so I entered high school as a more confident individual. At Hibriten High I met so many teachers who continued to shape my life.

Cindy Barlowe.

Carol Cox.

John Spicer.

The list could go on forever.

They taught me so many lessons including a love for writing and the pain of editing. I learned of that pain from Carol Cox through the two English classes she instructed.

I thought of Carol, Cindy, and John last week as I re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird where she writes, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

As I read that passage over and over, I considered our work at EdNC. I thought of my love for the educators in my life. I realized that my favorite teachers taught me a vital lesson. They taught me through reading and writing that I had a voice, and it was that voice, and my ability to read a multitude of voices from across the world and across time, that would help me find a way forward in life, even in the darkest times.

To all of the teachers in my life, inside and outside of the classroom, I owe you my deepest gratitude. Thank you.


Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.