I remember almost every Tuesday of my first grade year of school. Previously, Tuesdays had been pretty innocuous and I hadn’t even noticed their coming and going, but every ounce of attention my six year old psyche could muster was focused on Tuesday mornings at 8:15 am. My mom would drop me off in the carpool line and I would race (well, speed-walk- it was Catholic school after all) to Mrs. Loscudo’s magic first grade room to see if she was wearing the shoes. What joy awaited me if she was wearing her red and green and navy plaid Keds. Every child in that class knew what those shoes meant. If she had on her Keds, we were getting extra recess time to play kickball, and she would honor us by being all-time roller. This woman, who we all loved and respected and adored, would take time out of her precious planning period to encourage us and laugh with us and be human with us. To a room full of six- year olds, this was a priceless gift. Her affection and attention, shown through a kickball game emblazoned in my memory, would be a catalyst for me. I knew then, even as a small child, that I, too, wanted to create space for the people around me. I wanted to encourage and foster a safe space for students. I wanted to teach.
Many of the women who I revere and respect the most have been a teacher to me in some way. Some have guided me academically, pushing me to question everything and develop my own voice. Others have shown me what it means to be a woman. How to press in when I want to pull away. How to navigate when I find myself lost. How to know when to persevere and when to bow out. I have simultaneously found sanctuary and liberation in the shadows of some pretty strong women. But, truthfully, I never expected that I would still be learning from teachers in my thirties. This is supposed to be the done part. The part where I get to exercise my right to be this person that I’ve so painfully and beautifully become. But, BOY WAS I WRONG.
Let me very briefly just try to explain from the beginning. I am a teacher. I taught high school History and Literature to 11th and 12th grade students. I know what it’s like to be in the trenches with students who are learning about much more than dystopian societies or who was really behind the Bay of Pigs. So, when it came time for me to put my own tiny baby boy in school, I was certain that I knew what to expect. I knew I had prepared him for school academically. I had socialized him as much as possible. He attended a great pre-k and I felt like he was ready to spread his wings and soar into the most successful year of his life. And he did fine. He did. But as we approached his first grade year my anxiety began to mount. I just wanted him to love school like I did. I wanted him to have that magic year with that incredible teacher that would change everything. I knew how utterly important it would be for my little guy, who is prone to anxiety and perfectionism, to make a connection with his teacher like I had all those years ago. That summer I journaled and prayed that he would have that special connection with his teacher that would breed confidence and security. And either I’m just a fantastic pray-er or fate shone favor on me, but my boy scored Krista O’Daniel.
I had known Mrs. O (as so many affectionately call her. She may absolutely hate being called that but it’s too late now) for years. She had taught my siblings and I had observed the camaraderie she had with her students, past and present. I loved her gentle spirit and the way she genuinely seemed to listen and care for each child. Once, I watched in disbelief as she was able to listen to a story from a child who kept repeating the same sentiment in many different ways, going on and on for several minutes. In the high school world, we were lucky if we got students to look at us while we were talking to them some days, but here she was, being regaled by a first grader about a bug he caught at recess. And her face was sweet and tuned into this child, even after the third retelling of the same anticlimactic story. I secretly hoped from the beginning that somehow my boy would find his way to her.
More and more I keep finding that teaching is a profession that makes a way. Most teachers were not born with this inherent desire to plan lessons and cultivate materials and record grades. But they were all born with the deep longing to help, and Krista O’Daniel is no exception. As a child of the military, she moved frequently until her family settled in Dyersburg, where she worked as a nurse’s aid in high school and eventually settled into a career teaching young children, first as a director of a church pre-k and kindergarten. She knew that she wanted to break into the public school system but, being in such a small town (Trimble, Tennessee- population 673!), finding a job in the school system can be a tall order, as you usually have to wait for an older teacher to retire. So, she took a job teaching Special Education in Trimble while working on her Masters in Elementary Curriculum from Union University. See, that’s the thing about teachers. We tend to be lovers of learning and we squeeze every bit of education and knowledge out of every opportunity we can. Most of your teachers are highly qualified and highly educated, and Mrs. O’Daniel is certainly no exception. For thirteen years she taught in Trimble, working with various age and ability groups. And that is no simple task. Each year, each day, each moment, looks different in a classroom, especially in a classroom focused on differentiating instruction to meet the needs of EACH child, and she weathered it all. In my eyes, she is a doer of hard things.
During this time, Krista met her husband, Randy. They fell in love and got married and over the course of the next few years they became parents to two baby girls. Being a first time parent is hard enough, especially when you are a teacher. You cannot just take a maternity leave. There are hours and days and months spent preparing curriculum for your students so that they do not fall behind when you are gone. There is the arduous task of finding someone who you trust to guide your students in your absence. You want to know that you have left them in the most capable and kind hands. But Krista had her first baby at only 27 weeks. She and Randy spent two and a half months in the hospital with their tiny girl before they could even bring her home. And then, three years later, the couple had a second baby girl, born, again, at 27 weeks. What emotionally and physically exhausting work it is to parent a baby, but here she was, mothering these two miracle girls. Over the span of three years, she had walked through fear and pain and joy and managed to come out on the other side. AND, she kept career and family plates spinning despite her circumstances.
I am always in awe of women who raise children and still manage to be amazing teachers. The work of a teacher is ubiquitous. It doesn’t end when the bell rings and it certainly doesn’t leave you alone at night. Finding a balance between family and a teaching career is, and I can say this with certainty, incredibly hard. I have watched Mrs. O’Daniel from a distance for many years now. Her daughters and my siblings were around the same ages and I had always admired her as an educator. But as I have gotten to know her more, I might venture to say that her ability to keep her family as her top priority has become one of her most impressive qualities to me. She told me that as her girls grew from infants to toddlers to students, she had to constantly adjust the time she spent at home and at school. When she was home, she was home. She devoted herself fully to her girls and to Randy when she was physically with them. And, sisters, I am fully aware of the mental fortitude that women have to keep small humans alive and to pack lunches and soothe hurt feelings and read books and solve problems, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have a supportive husband to bear the weight of the incredible responsibility of raising children. And Krista kept reiterating that she relied on her husband’s support. In teaching, in mothering children, in life. And from what I can see, Mr. Randy is the real deal. He spent hours during summer hanging white boards. Hell, he even posted a “back- to-school” photo of Krista on the first day this year, praising her for being such a “hard worker”. Talk about marriage goals! And now, even as her girls are adults and she has more margin to focus on her career, she still manages to find time to go to concerts with Mr. Randy and move her girls into new homes and apartments. I will never stop admiring her ability to press into everyone around her.
Truthfully, I was incredibly hesitant, at this point in our community’s story, to interview a teacher. If you have been paying attention AT ALL to Jackson, you know that there just seems to be one weird, wrong, ludicrous decision after another being handed down to our teachers and parents and students. I am fully aware of the pattern of discord that has existed between some of those that are making decisions and the ones who have to pick up the pieces and execute those decisions. BUT, for these exact reasons, I knew I had to feature Krista O’Daniel and I knew it had to be now. She has a gift that I myself struggled to grab hold of and nurture. She is able to bypass all of the outside voices and hone in on her own classroom. Despite all of the change and uncertainty she shows up day in and day out and she teaches. She loves her students and treats them with respect. She pushes each child to find their interests and pursue them. She praises and fosters and sees each child as a whole, unique person. And the results? Well, they are beautiful. Children leave her classroom with passion and confidence. Sure, they can read and write and spell and derive meaning from texts, but they also feel cared for. And, surely, that is the hope of every educator. That students feel holistically cared for.
As I wrapped up my conversation with Mrs. O’Daniel (we met over coffee after school and, even after giving of herself all day to her students, she still had energy left to encourage ME), I felt compelled to ask her how we as individuals, who may or may not be connected to the public schools, could support teachers and students. After all, the success of our public schools is directly related to our success as a community. And, as I should have expected, she provided a positive and prudent and tangible way that we can bolster our teachers and students. And it’s just so wonderfully simple. Show up. Yes, that’s really it. We can show up. We can read to a class. We can find a student who is having a tough time at home and eat lunch with them. We can volunteer to make copies for teachers who don’t have enough planning time to make it happen. We can teach a lesson in an area of our own expertise. We can show up to sporting events or band competitions or choral shows. We can write an encouraging note to a kid we don’t even know. We can buy a book or two for a classroom that might be in need. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, showing up takes very little personal investment. At first. But I would venture to bet that if we invested just a little, that small investment would grow into something that we could have never foreseen. And it just might make a difference. For all of us.
My son is in Krista O’Daniel’s class again this year. And I wish he could be in her class every year until he graduates. College. She has cared for him and invested in him in ways that even I did not know to. And she does that for each and every student in her care. As the school year was winding down last May, I asked my son if he could think of a gift to give Mrs. O to thank her for the ways that she had loved and taught him. He thought about it for a long time. He eventually settled on giving her the moon. Seeing as that was going to be difficult, albeit pretty damn adorable, I racked my brain for what I could possibly give this woman to show my immeasurable gratitude. And every time I thought of her and her life’s work, I kept coming back to a familiar phrase: we can do hard things. Because she has. And she continues to. And her willingness to do hard things has made a tremendously profound impact on her family and on every child who has graced her classroom and every family connected to that child. She is truly in the business of change, and change is hard. But she is leaving a legacy for her girls and for the men and women who have been lucky enough to teach alongside her. THAT’S the kind of woman I want in my corner.