Growing up in an immigrant family in California I hated hearing “you must study hard!” My parents insisted, more like commanded, doing well in school. They told me countless times that to secure a prosperous and stable future in America was to study hard. I didn’t really know what that future looked like, but I imagined it would be a future without language barriers or money troubles.
To make this vague future a reality, I’d sit for countless hours at my desk staring at textbooks, solving math problems that seemed to have no answers, and daily working with private tutors to help me with my homework. Studying wasn’t intrinsically motivating for me; it was something I had to do well to make my parents proud. I wish that all my efforts translated to good grades but it didn’t. I struggled, did not understand what I was doing, and panicked everyday in school. My studies were aimless.
It wasn’t until I met an encouraging English teacher in 11th grade that I slowly came out of my shell and cultivated confidence in myself. His class was structured differently and he focused on helping his students develop their own voice. I was thrilled that he did not drill the dreaded five paragraph essays.
Instead, he had us read Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. We had opportunities to explore different genres of literature and to apply it to out own lives: write and present acceptance speeches for pretend awards; write poetry about a favorite topic; write about personal experience and describe what we observed. Until I met him, I did not know that words could beautiful and useful.
His personal belief that I had potential fueled my desire and perseverance to do well in school. I wanted to study for my benefit and for what I could learn and gain from it. In a way, my newfound goal was synonymous with my parents except that it was self-willed and not externally imposed on me.
For years I wanted to go back and tell this amazing teacher of the positive influence he made in my life, but I never got the chance. I kept waiting to get one more degree to show him that I was succeeding academically. I thought it wasn’t enough and I had to prove myself more. By the time I was a doctoral student and I tried to find him, it was not possible.
All I know is that this special teacher turned my life around and showed me that studying is not about grades. It is about deepening the meaning of my life with what I learned. I am so glad he reached out to help an awkward teenager and to inspire me to rethink my life and studies.