The year I started kindergarten was a year of big changes for my family and me. For me it meant the first time I would be away from my mom as I was given the gift of staying home with my mom and siblings as a young child rather than being sent to preschool. For my two older brothers and my older sister, it meant leaving Catholic school and attending public school for the first time. The two oldest siblings attended the local junior high and my brother and I were volunteer bussed to an elementary school outside of our neighborhood.
I remember the first morning of school more than anything else about that first year. At the time I didn’t realize exactly what was going on as my brother, my mom, and I stepped onto the bus but I did sense something big was happening. It wasn’t until later in life that I understood that my mom was choosing something for my siblings and I that many parents at the time were fighting against – she was sending us to the “black” neighborhood school in our city. For a few of my neighbors who didn’t have a choice in the matter as they were chosen for mandatory busing, they spent one year at L’Ouverature Elementary School and then returned to our neighborhood school. For my brother, two sisters and me, we completed all of our elementary years at this school because we loved the teachers, we loved the principal, and my mom loved that we were being exposed to something outside of what surrounded us in everyday life. (We didn’t realize at the time this was something different as we had never known anything else.) I realized something big was happening but what I didn’t realize until much later in life was that these experiences early in life would later guide me in my choices with rheumatoid arthritis.
I had awesome teachers almost every year of elementary school. My teachers were very sensitive to my shy personality and often took a special interest in me. That is until my last year of elementary school when I landed a spot in Mrs. Foust’s class. Mrs. Foust was the dreaded 6th grade teacher that nobody wanted. Mrs. Foust had taught 6th grade for many years and had her own way of teaching that was very different than the other 6th grade teacher who did lots of innovative activities. What I thought would be the worst year of my life actually turned out to be a year that has become a strong part of who I am today.
Mrs. Foust was the first of all of my elementary teachers who didn’t nurture my shyness. In her classroom I was no longer coddled or taken care of as I had been in the past. Rather than focusing on my shyness she focused on finding my strengths. She saw something in me that the others hadn’t seen and she pushed me to explore that part of my personality. She worked us hard and for the first time in all my years of elementary school, I felt smart. She forced me to face my shyness and insecurities every Friday afternoon when we gave book reports in front of the entire class.
Many years later I find myself facing many situations that are uncomfortable and once again I need to find my strengths in these situations. For my kids I chose not only to homeschool but to homeschool them in an alternative way compared to most homeschoolers. During this time of starting our homeschooling journey I also received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Both situations have forced me back to my 6th grade of elementary school with Mrs. Foust and I take her lead and force myself out of my comfort zone to grow and find that I am more than I ever thought I could be.
Each year at L’Ouverture we celebrated Black History Month as many schools do today. Most years we would watch a movie on Harriet Tubman or our teacher would read a “black” themed book to my partners and me. Black History Month with Mrs. Foust was of course more involved than in previous years. We read books, we learned songs, and we were each assigned a historical figure to research and present to the class. During this month of February in sixth grade, what I remember more than the people we researched and the songs we learned was Mrs. Foust. I can still see her face as plain as if it were yesterday when she introduced the idea of celebrating black figures. As a black woman herself, her face shared with us more than words could ever say. She was proud of who she was. Standing in front of a class of mixed color students in the 1970s she felt 100 percent proud of who she was and she didn’t have to say it, we all just knew it. Over the years, I have not found many people that I would say are “proud” of whom they are, but Mrs. Foust gave that gift to me - the gift to be proud of myself. Through all of her toughness, her face let me know she was proud of where she came from and most importantly, what she had become.
Living with an autoimmune disease has often left me feeling a range of feelings. It has left me scared and wondering what will become of me. Yet, over and over I often see Mrs. Foust’s face and I remember her sense of pride and comfort in who she was. That image often calms me and reminds me that being who I am is so important. Mrs. Foust helped me find strengths as a child and as an adult, she has reminded me through my memories of her to feel proud of who I am. The image of her reminds me to keep the memories of where I came from but more importantly to concentrate on what I have become. Rheumatoid arthritis has brought a lot of hardship to my life but it has also brought out many, many of my strengths. Mrs. Foust seems to keep giving some thirty years later. That is a sign of an excellent teacher.
My mom made a very brave decision when I was 5 years old in the early 1970s to volunteer bus us out of our neighborhood school. She rode that bus with us that first day because she wanted this to be a positive experience for us and it was. I will forever hold a special place in my heart for the teachers who cared so much for my shyness but Mrs. Foust will forever be my hero. She saw in me more than my disability. Yes, shyness can become a disability. She guided me to become more than the shyness that everyone else saw in me. Today, I still have a tendency towards being shy, but I also know I am so much more. The same is true for rheumatoid arthritis. I am so much more than an illness. I have new strengths that are always being discovered.
Published On: February 21, 2012