Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Teresa Meredith is in her third year as the statewide president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. The Shelby County native taught kindergarten in Shelbyville schools before moving to ISTA headquarters in Indianapolis to lead the union full time. We spoke to her after a press conference earlier this month at which the statewide teachers union announced a list of changes to Indiana law it would be pushing for during the 2016 legislative session.

Here’s her story:

Mrs. Griffith smelled like Gardenias.

She had on lipstick that matched her skirt, and she has on a white blouse with ruffly sleeves. I remember that first day of school like it like it was yesterday. Every time I smell Gardenias in the summer, I drift back to first grade, and I think of her.

I knew in first grade I wanted to be a teacher.

I didn’t go to kindergarten. We couldn’t afford it. It cost $22. I showed up in first grade, and I didn’t know a thing. My mom was great, but she only had a high school diploma. My dad has an eighth-grade education. They were very good, hardworking people who believed in education. I thought school was going to be heaven when I got there because they told me how great it was.

On that first day, I was nowhere near my peers. I couldn’t write my name. I couldn’t tie my shoes. I didn’t know my alphabet. My teacher quickly recognized how behind I was.

I was in the lowest reading group. And I knew it. That was tough, but I wanted to learn how to read and be in a different group, so I worked hard. Mrs. Griffith used to send home an envelop to my mom on the weekends. She made a big deal about how important it was on Fridays. I had no idea what was in there until many years later. There were games in there. We didn’t have the money for games like Memory or to buy flash cards. Over the weekend, we would play games. I didn’t know they weren’t our games. But by the end of the year I was almost caught up.

Mrs. Griffith was such an amazing teacher. At the end of the school year I told her, “I want to be just like you.” I remember she stood there and counted on her fingers and said, “If you time this right maybe we’ll get to teach together someday.” (They later did.)

By third grade I had caught up and I ended up graduating near the top of my class at Southwestern High School. I didn’t know a college graduate other than my teachers. I had no concept of what it meant. I knew I wanted to teach, but I didn’t know how to get there.

My teachers kept pushing and asking what college I was interested in. The only ones I knew were ones I’d seen playing ballgames on TV, so just Indiana and Purdue. But my teachers found me rides with other parents and got me to visit colleges that I never would have gone to see. I chose a small liberal arts college, Taylor University, because I was from a small high school. I didn’t know how I would pay for it, but I knew I would get lost in a big school.

My first job was in a Catholic school in Indianapolis. At one point a different Catholic school was getting ready to close. We were at a professional development with lots of other Catholic school teachers, and they were all talking about who would be losing their jobs.

I was appalled when I heard teachers with more than 10 years experience were going to be let go, but those with less than 10 years experience might be recommended to other Catholic schools. That just blew my mind. If you work at a Catholic school you are taking a pay cut anyway. So here you are offering to serve and doing really well but because they think you are getting too expensive, they’re going to let you go. They could do that. We had a one-page contract we had to sign every year with a morality clause in it that even required you to dress a certain way.

That was disturbing to me. When I got a job at a public school we had a 37-page contract, and I remember I read it cover to cover. I was full of questions. When someone came by and asked me to join the union, I had so many questions. I was happy to be at a place where I had rights and avenues to talk about my kids. Eventually I thought, “I want to do that. I want to make sure things didn’t happen like what happened to those people who were let go just because they had ‘too much’ experience.”

When I got here (to ISTA headquarters), I thought about the time my dad, who was a barber but ended up going to driver school and working for Greyhound busing for many years, took me on a trip to Chicago with him. I was in third grade and I got to go because family could go if there was an empty seat. We were in Indianapolis waiting for it to be time for the bus to leave. Even at that age, I talked about school all the time. I played school at home. My dad painted a chalkboard in the garage for me.

The bus station at the time was right behind the ISTA building. We walked around the block and he pointed to the building and said, “I don’t know what they do there, but they do something for teachers. Maybe some day you could work there.”