By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair
I grew up in poverty. The thing about poverty that you don’t know unless you’re in it, is deep poverty is like being stuck in a mirrored glass cage. You can only see yourself reflected through everyone else’s image of you.
You want people to really see you, but no matter what you do, they just see the poverty. The image that poverty created for my parents, my siblings and me was that we just weren’t good enough. Because of this, my childhood was chaotic.
At school, I felt out of place; the image I had of myself was that I just didn’t fit. Teachers either pitied me or ignored me. I remember sitting at a table by myself in 2nd grade, nearly in tears because I couldn’t figure out how to do a math worksheet and no one bothered to notice. When I think of my childhood schooling, I think of feeling stupid and alone.
But my path to becoming a teacher began in 3rd grade when Mrs. Reigelman interrupted our class to announce that a group of students were invited to come with her. She called all of the “smart,” “rich” kids up one by one, and then out of nowhere, called my name. I assumed I was in trouble.
I followed her and the others to another classroom where Mrs. Reigelman explained to us that we were gifted and that we would get to come learn in her room in all kinds of new ways each week. We completed projects, explored ideas, and developed creative and critical-thinking skills. I owe my life to that program.
Mrs. Reigelman gave me another option, another path. Because of this program, I made friends with different people from all walks of life. After that experience, I excelled in school, but more than that, I became curious and passionate about learning. That curiosity and passion lifted me out of poverty because I never wanted to stop learning; which is why I became a teacher – I never wanted to leave school.
My love for teaching began with a love of learning sparked in Mrs. Reigelman’s class. Any influence or contributions I have had as an educator have stemmed from this love of learning and a desire to challenge others to pursue their own passions and curiosity.
During my first year of teaching, I taught a student who was a known member of a gang. Jorge never spoke. He never turned in work. Instead, he bent over his desk day after day drawing graffiti. Being a first year teacher, I was enduring my own struggles at the time and took a while to notice this behavior.
Sometime around October, one day I looked at Jorge and saw my 2nd-grade self, sitting there alone and ignored. Instead of pushing him to complete the assignment I’d given the other students, I wrote him a note and placed it in front of him. I told him to respond to the text through graffiti. He turned in his first assignment that day and it was a beautiful piece of art. Every day after that, Jorge completed his assignments as graffiti art.
Before the year ended, he came around to writing entire essays. I checked in with Jorge the rest of his high school career. I never gave him a hard time for mistakes he made along the way; instead, I asked about his art. He thrived and enrolled in a graphic design program. He didn’t fit the mold school had created for him, but he found his own passion, and if I had the slightest hand in that, I feel privileged and proud. Each year, I try to find the Jorge in my class and help him find his passion. I do this as a way to pay back Mrs. Reigelman.
So this is why I #LoveTeaching. We get to teach the voiceless how to speak, teach the apathetic how to light a spark and teach outcasts how to build a community for themselves. I am grateful every single day that I had teachers like Mrs. Reigelman who did this for me, and I just hope to be that for my own students each day.
Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, a National Board certified teacher and is in her 10th year of teaching. She has taught in Fayette and Jefferson counties and now teaches English and creative writing at North Oldham High School (Oldham County). She currently is on sabbatical from her classroom and working at the Kentucky Department of Education.