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.
Beth (Medawar) Sperry will start this fall teaching at Global Prep Academy, an Indianapolis Public Schools innovation school at School 44. Previously, Medawar was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at School 51.
The reason I’m actually a teacher today is because I started my fourth grade year with the chicken pox. I had it so bad, I had to miss the first two weeks of the school year. But when I showed up, the teacher … she was not very nice to me. She was actually very verbally abusive.
She told me I was fat and ugly every day. She told me I was worthless. She told me I would never amount to anything in my life, and she said this in front of my peers, in front of my friends, and it changed their opinion of me. I remember one day my mom made cupcakes for some reason, and I brought her one. She looked at me and threw it in the trash in front of me.
For the whole year, I did everything in my power to please her. That was the year I decided to I was going to be a teacher, and I was never going to allow a teacher to make a kid feel the way I felt.
Thankfully, I had very good teachers after that who kind of helped build me back up. When you go through something like that … how do you look at a place where you’re supposed to be safe and learn?
Teachers are supposed to be role models, and these kids look up to their teachers just like they look up to their parents. I was in a situation where I had no one to look up that year. It changed who I wanted to be.
I tell my students, “You’re not going to get that here, and you’re not going to treat others that way.”
A few years ago, I was having a really rough year. (When a kid transferred into my class), he had severe anger and emotional handicaps. He threw a chair at me. He came back after spring break, and he had it in his head that I was going to hate him forever. When he walked in that door, I looked at him and said, “Hi, how are you? Welcome back.”
And ever since, for those nine weeks, that child was the most perfect child because he knew I didn’t hold it against him.
He ended up getting kicked out of our school.
A couple months later, it was around Christmas time, and I was standing in Von Maur … and all of a sudden, I have this person, like, attack me from behind. And I turn around and it was that kid, and he just looked at me and he said, “You know, you changed my life. You made me a better person. You were the only person who ever believed in me.”
That right there solidified the fact of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Even though I didn’t necessarily coddle him, or do anything differently than I do for any other kid, I made that difference for that kid. And I really wish someone would’ve noticed that for me.
I’ve been a teacher for 14 years. I never wavered from it.
I blame the chicken pox.