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Teachers Who Made a Difference

New America Media, Commentary, Various Authors Posted: Oct 02, 2009

Editors note: In early September, on schoolyards and in hallways across the country, the same excited, anxious question rings out: Who'd you get? Students know that the heart of education beats inside the individual teacher. When NAM asked young people in our youth communications programs to write about the one teacher whod really made a difference, they barely had to think before the keys were flying. This feature supported by funding from the California Teachers Association.

Coach K Demanded Greatness
By Roland Ballard
The teacher who made the biggest difference in my life would be my high school freshmen P.E. teacher, Keith Norman, better known as Coach K. He was my coach on the basketball team and also the first person to sit and talk to me about college. And he never let up on me. Outside of all the basketball knowledge he passed on to me, he also showed me the ways of a man. He taught me that a man makes sacrifices to be successful.

Coach demanded greatness on and off the court, but more off the court. His goal, as he says every time we have the first basketball meeting of the year, is to get us into college. We dont start talking basketball until a week before practice starts. He wanted the team to have a 3.0 GPA, and if we did that he would up the ante and say, Get a 4.0 GPA.

Coach demanded great things every time you stepped into the gym. He held everybody to a high bar and expected you to meet his standards. If you didnt, he would push you until you did. You knew he cared about you and whatever was going on in your life, even when you didnt see eye to eye. Coach K would go to bat for you and give you his full support if you were willing to make the same sacrifice for his word. He made gym and basketball more than just an exercise class and an extracurricular activity.

I know I can call him or email him if I ever need anything, like words of advice or a push in the right direction. Coach was and still is a role model to those who he has had the honor of coaching and those he has taught. To me, Coach K is a father figure and has helped me many times along this journey of life these last four years, with many more to come.

Roland Ballard, 18, graduated from a public high school. He is preparing to start college and currently works as an intern for YO! Youth Outlook.

Ms. G: A Push in the Right Direction
By Anastasia Freeman

Throughout the years I have had a lot of teachers who have greatly affected me. The one who has affected me the most has to be Ms. Grinberg, my English and History teacher. She is the reason I am alive today.

When I first came into her class it was because I had gotten kicked out of my old high school. I walked in with my mind made up that I wasnt doing anything at all. I had just given birth to my daughter, who was a preemie and was still in the hospital. I was only going to school because I was on probation and I didnt want to go back to jail. So, for two whole marking periods I just sat there and failed.

My mom was furious and my P.O. (probation officer) was so disappointed, but I didnt care. Then one day, Ms. Grinberg asked me to come see her after school. I went and she sat me down and asked me what was going on with me. I told her nothing and that everything was okay. She told me she knew something was wrong because she had seen me crying a few times in class and someone had told her about my baby. She asked me to stand up and she hugged me. I couldnt do anything but break down into tears and ask her what she wanted from me.

She told me that she would help me with whatever I needed as long as I promised her that I would stay in school. She also told me that she believed in me and that she knew I was smart because my California exit exam test came back and I scored the highest in our whole school in English. It made me really think about things and want to get myself together. That night I went to the hospital and promised my daughter that I would try to be better for her.

I went to school the next few days and Ms. Grinberg helped me with all my work. It turned out that I was 60 credits behind. I wasnt going to graduate. That discouraged me even more because all my friends were going to graduate and it was just me who would be left behind.

Just when I thought all was lost, Ms. G came in and helped me again. She gave me extra work to make up for what I had missed. She stayed in on her lunch time to help me with my homework. She helped me study every day to regain credits. Next thing I knew I had more credits than I needed and my counselor was telling me that I could graduate a half-year early if I wanted.

I know that if it wasnt for that little white lady pushing me that I would have never graduated. She didnt just do it for me. Her curriculum was teaching in a way that we could understand, and if we had more than we could bear on our shoulders (like mine), she had ways to make the work a little bit easier and gave us all the tools she could to help us succeed. I have had a lot of good teachers, but she was the best by far.

Anastasia Freeman, 19, graduated from a public high school and is currently working as an intern for New America Media.

Mr. Jackson Told Me I Would Go Places
By Janet Lagto

Michael Jackson. For many people, that name sparks memories of the dancing, performing maestro of pop. For me, however, it strikes up memories of attending high school, and sitting in Mr. Jacksons stifling classroom that smelled heavily of mildew and glue. This tall, blonde man touched a very special place in my heart.

Although I was rarely in school during most of my high school years, when I was there, my favorite place to be was in Mr. Jackson's classroom, listening to him rant and rave in an intellectual and witty way. He knew I had no interest in school. He knew I was picky about what work I would actually do. Yet he placed hope in me and told me things my other teachers never did. He told me that someone as bright as me (imagine, me, bright!) would eventually go places.

When I got too pregnant to go to school and dropped out to move to another city, his "Good-bye, I wish you the best" meant the most because...well, he meant it. The memories of his classes kept me going when I thought my life was over. Sounds a bit extreme, but it's the truth.

One thing in particular that he did that really stands out in my mind. It was my junior year, the last year I would show my pregnant face at my school. Mr. Jackson assigned us a paper. The topic was "What America Means to Me." I wrote the most cynical, sarcastic piece I could muster, spewed it onto two and a half pages of printer paper and turned it in. It was one of the only assignments I did in Mr. Jackson's class. He took that paper and then surprised me by starting the next class off by saying, "Okay, kids. I'm going to read something out loud that you can all learn from. I might not agree with the writer but it's a darn good piece of writing." He proceeded to read my paper out loud to my classmates who, of course, didn't really listen, but they heard enough to say at the end that whoever wrote it should leave America.

He kept me at the end of the class to congratulate me and he asked me why I didn't do my work more often, since I was more than capable of doing it. I told him I was lazy. He kept my paper for two days to read to all of his classes.

Janet Lagto, 19, is the mother of two children and currently works at the Beat Within.

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