I believe so, yes. I know firsthand that just one teacher in your formative years holds in their actions the power to either make you or break you. Ultimately, it’s up to you how you respond to said teacher – negatively, positively or indifferently. Still, an adult’s actions toward a child stay with them for a lifetime.

In my case, I had two teachers, one in 7th grade, who tried her best to destroy my self-esteem and set me down a path of personal destruction, and another in 8th grade, who showed me that it is possible to overcome challenges and find alternate ways to succeed.

Let me explain.

In 7th grade, I experienced a teacher who seemed very clearly to dislike children in general. This isn’t a woe-is-me tale, it’s just the truth. I wasn’t the only student in her cross hairs that year, though she certainly did hit a bullseye when she took fire upon me. In short, her message to me was this:

  • Comply with the rules no matter how arbitrary they may seem
  • Do not speak your mind, just do what you’re told
  • Dreamers become failures

Yeah, she was a real peach.

Fortunately, when this maniacally angry woman insisted I would amount to absolutely nothing in life because of my ‘bad attitude,’ I had the wherewithal at the ripe young age of 12 to tell her, “Go fuck yourself,” and walk out of the school right there and then.

Out with the old, in with the new

After the previous year’s belittling, and the now sudden onset of raging pre-pubescent hormones, 8th grade was challenging to say the least. Thankfully, the cosmos saw fit to shed a glimmer of light on my preteen darkness. This light appeared as a teacher young enough to have finger on the pulse of what his students were experiencing, new enough to teaching that he hadn’t yet become cynical and negative, and still he managed to possess a level of maturity that naturally commanded the respect of his students.

It was this teacher who showed me hope. He showed me that a teacher should lift his students up, not tear them down. He showed me it was OK to be me, even if that meant going against the grain.

I didn’t have a “bad attitude” back then. I had a mental health issue. I was driven, I was independent and I was full of fire. But I was also grappling with clinical depression, trauma and severe social anxiety—a crippling combination that would go undiagnosed (and subsequently untreated) for another 12 years yet.

Perhaps he knew, perhaps he suspected … or perhaps he chose simply to give me the benefit of the doubt rather than labelling me as worthless brat with a bad attitude. Whatever his reasons, this teacher chose to work with me to achieve our collective goal to simply pass 8th grade and go on to high school and start anew. His willingness to compromise for the bigger picture taught me:

  • It’s OK (if not imperative) to embrace your uniqueness
  • There’s more than one way to get from A to B
  • There are good people out there who will focus on your strengths instead of shaming you for your shortcomings

Sidebar: By allowing me the opportunity to do the work in a slightly different way that suited my personality and ability, I passed the year and went on to high school. As it turned out, 3 semesters was more than enough time to realize I wouldn’t survive the full four years. And so it began, a life devoted to doing things my way.

“You’ve spent your entire life avoiding responsibility.”

This is a direct quote from my father not so very long ago. He said it, though, in admiration not in judgement. He was proud of the way I’d built my life to suit my own desires rather than giving in to what society thought my life should look like. That comment really got me thinking … he’s right! The traditional world wasn’t made for people like me, so I had to do a little extra work to create the world that matched my vision.

That meant no corporate BS, no nine to five, and no 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. No, I’m more of a traveling, adventure-seeking, be my own boss kind of person. I come by it naturally from both my mother and father.

I credit my entrepreneurial success to many factors—my own strength and perseverance, and to the love, dedication and support of my parents. I also credit my independent success to my 8th grade teacher. The man who, at a crucial turning point in my young life, showed me that success comes in many forms. That no matter who you are, where you came from, or what you’re going through, you can find your own path to success. And whether or not he meant to do it, he taught me one very critical thing that sticks with me today:

The “system” may be black and white. Real life is not.

Even in my 40s, I continue to learn, and only now am I beginning to understand the meaning of gratitude. My hope is that this story resonates with students of all ages. Even more importantly, I hope this resonates with educators of all ages.

It won’t always be easy, but the decision is yours to make. As a student, will you succumb to the naysayers who try to tear you down? Or will you rise to the occasion of being lifted up by those who believe in you? As a teacher, will you empower your students to become independent thinkers or will you break their spirits and crush their individuality?

Understand the implications of both sides. Then make your choice.

– Aimee