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A Letter to NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia

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Lily Eskelsen Garcia,

I am an educator. It was a job selection I did not take lightly. It was a calling I eagerly answered. It was a little bit of goodness once given to me as a child that I needed to give back to the world somehow.

I am a National Education Association (NEA) member, which you are president of. I come from a long and proud background of union coal miners, linemen and electricians.

I am a mother to a child who has special needs.

And once, I was a student as well. In fact, I was one of those students you referenced in your speech at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala when you said that as teachers, “We diversify our curriculum instruction to meet the personal individual needs of all of our students, the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.”

Chronically tarded. Medically annoying.

For years, I silently suffered in a schooling system that was not prepared to meet my diverse needs — my learning disability. Instead, I spent my early school years being punished for struggling in math. I missed out on recesses and art projects and class rewards because my mind couldn’t process the math worksheets and tests placed before me. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, how much I studied, how often I practiced, I failed. Every time. I became the kid who was bad at math, and everyone in my class knew it, too.

I was the “medically annoying” child who feigned illness after illness so I could go home. So I could hide my inadequacies. So none of my peers would see how hard math was for me. I was not trying to be annoying. I did not want to make my teacher’s job more difficult. I was trying to save face. To persevere. To somehow survive.

By the time I reached sixth grade, I was a shy and withdrawn student. I rarely raised my hand. I lacked confidence in my abilities. I loathed school. l felt worthless.

And then, I walked into the sixth grade classroom of Mrs. Hinkle. A room full of inquiry and diversity and creativity. A room full of warmth and positivity and acceptance. A room where I was recognized — for the first time — for my strengths instead of my weaknesses. I was no longer “Ali who was terrible at math.” I was “Ali who read with expression,” “Ali who was kind and trustworthy,” “Ali who won the D.A.R.E. Essay contest.”

I started to raise my hand. I started to believe in myself. I started to thrive.

As educators, we have rough days. There are formal assessments and informal assessments to plan, to give and to grade. There is data to be collected and reflected on. There are staff meetings and department meetings and committee meetings and “I-Think-We-Are-Just-Here-To-Say-We-Had-A-Meeting” meetings. There are lesson plans, grading and evaluations. And there are students to teach and inspire. Students who come from diverse backgrounds, who have diverse needs, who require us to diversify our classrooms.

I know our list of responsibilities is endless at best, but what if we focused on the opportunities we have been given as educators instead of the challenges? What if we replaced “We diversify our curriculum instruction to meet the personal individual needs of all of our students, the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically tarded and the medically annoying,” with this:

“We have been blessed with one of the most important jobs. Each day, we are given the opportunity to help all students — no matter what their abilities may be — feel successful, feel cared for, feel valued. We help them envision new ideas and search for creative solutions to problems. We help them hear and consider new perspectives and in doing so, challenge their own beliefs. We help them build the confidence needed to take risks, and when they fall, we pick them up, brush them off and build them back up. And when they soar — and they will soar — we are given a first row seat to cheer them on. We have the privilege to make a difference in the lives of our children, and that is the beautiful reality we are gifted with.”

Recently, on the NEA website, you reflected on your speech, writing, “Open mouth. Insert foot. That’s what I did.” Yes, you did. I sincerely hope the next time you are given the platform to speak about the students we are blessed to serve, you open your heart and insert acceptance, love and thankfulness.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: YouTube video screenshot

Originally published: December 3, 2015
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