I remember the first day of school, which for me was also the first day of third grade. It was a cold September day, or at least that's how I recall it as a newcomer to the United States. It was raining that day and I followed all the other kids inside the cafeteria as the school bell rang, announcing the beginning of the school day.
I sat on the long white benches with other kids who I was told would be in my class. But I didn't speak. I stared down at my hands, silently waiting to be ushered to my classroom. My first third-grade teacher was a teacher that was trained to handle ESL kids. But I realize now that she was the first person to push me to come out of my shell. She would take me to the library after school and she's the one who introduced me to my first "Harry Potter" book. She was the one who realized, after just a week of knowing me, that I didn't belong in an ESL class. I was already fluent in English, but it was my shy nature that made it so others would think that I could not communicate.
I recall the day she wrote a math problem on the board, a seemingly notorious algorithm to our little third-grade minds. I remember her asking if someone could come up and solve it. I looked around and no one did. One kid was busy sticking gum beneath a desk, a task which utterly disgusted me while another one was busy dealing cards from beneath the desk. But my teacher looked disappointed and I could not fathom why these kids would not pay attention to this sweet woman who was trying her best to teach them. I raised my hand, or so I thought I did. But it was a meek attempt. I didn't expect to be called upon or even noticed amongst the sea of students who could care less about algebra. But my teacher noticed me. She watched me as I precariously placed a chair next to the blackboard and picked up the white chalk. I heard snickers behind me. "Ohh the new kid's gonna mess up." But I paid no mind to them. I silently climbed up the chair- the math problem towered at least a foot above my head- and then proceeded to solve the equation. I silently walked back to my seat, paying them no mind.
My teacher and I would talk after class because I did not like to talk in front of the other kids. We would discuss books, the ones she'd read mostly because I was still reading that "Harry Potter" book, and home- my home. She'd ask me how Pakistan was. I remember crying then because no words could describe my home nor the love for my home. And I guess she must've understood the meaning of the unspoken words. I learned, later on, that she was an immigrant. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I was taken aback by that question. Aside from my parents, no one else cared about what I wanted to be. I told her that I wanted to be a doctor and she believed me- no questions asked.
But regardless, she made sure I was transferred to another teacher within the second week of school and made sure I was taken out of any extra ESL classes. She instead enrolled me in an art class after school. I would help students paint sets for our monthly school plays and it was there that I felt most at home. I had already left my home behind and it did seem a bit rushed that I was already changing the environment which I had spent 8 hours of my day in. But my teacher assured me that the new classroom would be a more productive environment for me.
My new third-grade teacher, however, was someone who never took me seriously. I didn't know how to estimate. I didn't know how to count money (the coins confused me). And I didn't know what odd and even numbers were. Even my spelling was wrong; back home the word color was spelled "colour" and gray was spelled "grey." I didn't know the 5 boroughs. But she didn't make an effort to teach me. Instead, she mocked me for reading "Harry Potter" which she claimed was "too advanced for me." I had already read the first two books and was on the third book in the series. I remember that day as well, when I went to my previous teacher with tears in my eyes, saying that I didn't want to come to school anymore. And she listened. She taught me all that I did not know and so much more. She helped me zoom pass something known as "reading levels" and within months I could read at the highest level.
All I'm trying to say is that my third-grade teacher is the one who pushed me to be the person I am today socially. Had it not been for her, I don't know for how long I would've been the silent, new kid. I still speak with my third-grade teacher. And we know each other well. Both of them I should add. Even the one who had no faith in me. I mentored and tutored her daughter when I was in the fifth grade. She's the teacher who told me "math is just not your subject." And now mathematics is one of the subjects I enjoy and tutor often. I was also elected School Treasurer for the Penny Harvest the following year. She told me, "you read very slowly- stick to smaller books." I can breeze through multiple books now in a single week. She told me, "your grammar and spelling are horrendous." And I did work on that too. I won the school-wide spelling bee two years later. She said, "you need to speak up." I was selected to help the principal with morning announcements.
I read this poem a few years ago by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. It goes like this: "Someone I loved once gave me / a box full of darkness. / It took me years to understand / that this too, was a gift."I have come to realize as an adult, that even those who put you down have a way of shaping you. Negative or positive, that's entirely your own decision. You can let those words put you down or take them as constructive criticism and build yourself up. Everything that you face, good or bad, has a way of impacting you. Trust me. I have defied all odds to exist.