I adore style and beauty, but my first love and passion is teaching. They say teaching is a calling, and I believe that has been true of me. However, the road that led to this point in my life was a little difficult. Still, great difficulties can give birth to beautiful things. This has happened in my case.
My Mom, Gwendolyn, the strongest woman I know, became a single parent at the age of 19. Although, very young she took great care of me. I was loved, happy, and healthy.
When I was 4 years old, she married a man who proved to be horrible. He was both physically and verbally abusive. He was jealous of the attention that my mother gave me. He would say, “You’re not pretty. You’re just average. You’re ugly.” Slowly, I began to believe him. Mom didn’t about Marvin’s words because she was working two jobs. She worked in a small business office during the day, and cleaned office buildings at night. My unemployed step-father watched me during the day. He spent his time surfing TV and befriending the woman next door.
One day, while Mom was at work, he made me hold our barking dog while he “entertained” the next door neighbor on our sofa. Then the two of them left me alone in the apartment. I didn’t fully comprehend everything that I’d seen, but I knew that this was wrong. I decided to lock him out of the apartment, but I was too short to reach the dead blot. I took 2 or 3 folding chairs and placed them against the front door. Then I ran to the kitchen phone and punched number after number in an attempt to call my Grandmother. Eventually, the operator answered the phone line.
“I wanna talk to my Granny!” I told her.
“What’s her name?” The woman asked.
“It’s Granny,” I told her. She chuckled.
“No sweetie, everyone has a name. What’s your full name?” She gently prodded.
“Jennifer G—- M—–, “I said.
“Okay Jennifer, what do other grown-ups call your Grandma?” the operator asked, but I never got to answer. I heared the heavy footsteps on the stairs, saw the brass doorknob turn, and I knew he was coming.
“I want my Grandma!” I screamed in panic, but it was too late. Marvin opened the door causing the chairs to come crashing to the floor. He yanked the phone away, apologized to the operator for letting me “play on the phone” and swore that “she’s not home alone” before he hung up. He turned to me in a fit of rage, and then he went to find a shoe. He then proceeded to beat me, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, with that shoe. When Mom came home, he kept us apart by telling her that I was being punished for not listening to him. I was to have no dinner that night; I was to stay in my room, all alone. So my Mom didn’t come. She ate dinner hurriedly, watched a little tv, and then left for her evening job. I laid there on my belly throbbing and aching through the night.
That next day, Mom got up and went to work again. I stayed with Marvin in the apartment laying alone in my room, until he came to get me. “Get up girl,” he ordered. He dressed me in a long sleeve turtleneck sweater to hide the bruises. It hurt to sit in the car, but I remembered the beating from the day before, and so I forced my throbbing back against the seat. He had a job interview and needed someone to watch me. With no other choice, Marvin dropped me off at my Grandmother’s house. When Grandma opened her front door I became filled with anger. From my young reasoning, I had tried to call her on the telephone, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t save me, all because I didn’t know her name was Helen Morgan, not Grandma.In frustration, I quietly hid underneath the bed. Nobody could get me to come out. Grandma knew something was wrong. She made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, placed them on a paper plate, and slid them to me under the bed. My 5 year old cousin, Solomon, joined me in my quiet place of darkness. Grandma turned on the TV across the room. She knew I could see it from where I hid. She put on Sesame Street and together Solomon and I laid on our bellies watching the TV. Sesame Street turned into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Thomas the Train, followed by Lamb Chop’s Play Along until I finally gave in to sleep.
When I awoke, I needed to use the restroom, and pushed myself from underneath the bed. That is how my Grandmother caught me. She had been sitting silently waiting for me to come out. She grabbed the back of my arm and I flinched away in pain. She raised my shirt, saw the bruises, and began to cry.
“Oh baby!” she moaned, hugging me, and trying not to hurt me. Then she went to work. She gave me a warm oatmeal bath and added Epsom salt. She rubbed cooling lotion over my bruised flesh. I couldn’t sit in the tub because it hurt too badly. So I stood and just let her gently bathe my skin. The reflection of my back in the bathroom mirror was ghastly- purple, green, blacks and blues peppered my brown skin from the nape of my neck to the soles of my feet. You could see the outline of a shoe.
My mom came that afternoon to pick me up. “Gwen, I need to talk to you about that man.” Grandma said. They began to talk, but it ended explosively.
“You just don’t want me to be happy!” Mom yelled. She took hold of my hand and left the house, not noticing my flinching. “Just look at her! Look at your daughter!” Grandma yelled from the front door. However, Mom drove away angrily. I didn’t understand exactly what had happened but I knew we were going back to the apartment, back to him, and I began to plot.
When we got inside I went straight to my bedroom. I found my Rainbow Brite backpack and began stuffing it with fistfuls of clothes and toys. I was sore, but I was determined to leave. I pushed the screen out of the second story window of our apartment, and just stood there. I was planning how I would jump. I still remember my exact thoughts. “I will jump on the tall tree, then jump to the bush, and get to the ground. Then I’ll run back to my Grandma’s house.” I took a deep breath and started to count. 1, 2….My mother opened the bedroom door. “Jenna,” she called, “it’s bath time”. She crossed the room, shut the window, took hold of my hand, and marched me into the bathroom. (I asked her, when writing this blog post, if she knew what I had been thinking that day.) She had no idea that I was planning to jump. Thoughtlessly she removed my backpack and told me to get into the tub. I leaned over to take off my shoes.
That’s when Mom saw the first bruise. She froze and then quietly closed the bathroom door. She turned me around, raised up my shirt, and gasped. “Did he do this to you?” she questioned. I nodded and then watched as my 24 year old mother burst into tears. Have you ever heard of the term ugly cry? That was the ugliest cry I’ve ever seen. “Oh baby,” she whimpered as she gripped me in a gentle hug. Then she went to get the telephone and called my Grandma. They talked and talked until Mom calmed down. Finally, Mom hung up the phone, dressed me, and took my hand in hers. She found her purse, car keys, and my Rainbow Brite backpack. We walked into the living room where my stepfather lazily watched TV.
“Marvin, I’m going to Taco Bell. We’ll be right back.” Mom said as casually as she could. And just like that, we walked out the front door with the clothes on our backs and never returned. (I have an awesome mommy, don’t you think?)
“Every test in our life makes us bitter or better. You must choose to be the victim or the victor.”
Eventually, the bruises healed, but the damage was done. My mother and I moved back into my Grandmother’s home. Mom was was going through a nasty divorce. She was terribly stressed out, sick, and angry. Ever heard of the clique ‘mad black woman’? Yes, that was my mother. She was like a fire breathing dragon as she now juggled work, the divorce, negotiations with her soon to be ex-husband, gossip from extended family members, and her own self defeat. She changed from a sweet nurturing young woman to an angry bitter hellion before my very eyes. “All men are dogs!” she’d rant. Through it all, she was constantly sick with vomiting, dizziness, and exhaustion. After some weeks my grandmother encouraged her to visit the doctor. Soon she found out that it was morning sickness. My mother was pregnant with the child of her failed marriage. I was going to have a little brother or sister! While I was excited my mother was devastated. How in the world would she care for two children as a single parent?That September, I began kindergarten, and my little sister was born a few months later in January. I liked school. At school, I felt safe and distracted from all the drama at home. I was a good helper to both my classmates and my teachers. Each one of them seemed to sense that I needed a little more attention, and readily gave it. I was the girl who was always late to school, who never had money for the book fair, and wore little boys’ clothing from my older cousins. I was the girl who never attended after school functions or went on field trips. You see my Grandma feared my step father coming around, so I didn’t get to go. Through it all, my teachers nurtured me and praised me. I still remember the name of each teacher. Mrs. Wilkerson (kindergarten) Mrs. Tarpley (1st) Mrs. Pyle (2nd), Mrs. Gerwick (3rd), Mrs. Robinson (4th) and Mrs. Joyner (5th). It was my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Pyle, who told me, “Sweetie, you should be a teacher when you grow up.” That statement stuck with me.However, I didn’t feel pretty like all of the other girls. I could still hear my stepfather’s words, “You’re not pretty. You’re ugly.” I decided that if I couldn’t be pretty, then I would be smart. I was diligent and excelled academically at school. I earned Excellent Citizenship and Honor Roll in every subject. There was an endless supply of ribbons and certificates each grading period. Nevertheless, the little nagging voice grew, and I felt horrible inside.In 3rd grade, my mother put a “Just For Me” relaxer on my hair. She thought it would make my hair easier to manage in the mornings as she got ready for work. “Just for Me” was a total disaster! The chemical was left on too long. It destroyed my hair and ate holes in my scalp. Mom had to cut all of my hair off so that it was an inch short all over my head. Instead of being seen as the classroom helper or the teacher’s pet, I became the classroom scapegoat. “You’re bald-headed. Flat chested! Afro-puff! Ugly, Proper Talkin’ Girl. (Little girls can be so mean.) Now I not only felt ugly but, in my eyes, I looked ugly too.
“Make sure you don’t start seeing yourself through the eyes of those who don’t value you.”
My mother noticed my failing self esteem and the tears I cried. She had my hair braided by a friend of a friend. For the first time in years, I perked up like a flower in the warm sunshine. I felt pretty, I felt happy, and I did even better in school because of it. My teacher’s recommend that I be placed in gifted/honor classes.
My mother, eventually decided to go back to college to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business. She struggled to make ends meet. We had just enough money to care for our needs, but nothing for extras. I still remember Grandma counting out pennies from a sock just to put gas in the car. Mom worked and went to college simultaneously. College Algebra was difficult and she had began attending peer tutoring sessions. Eventually, she and the tutor, James, began dating. I still remember the first day I met my Dad. He bent down on one knee, shook my small hand, and introduced himself. “Hi I’m Jay,” he smiled with happy blue eyes. I instantly loved him. My parents were married a year later.
“Wear your tragedies as armor, not shackles.”
Together, my parents James and Gwendolyn, continued to put themselves through college and raise two daughters. They struggled but always provided the necessities. We had everything we needed food, clothing, and shelter- which was a blessing. There was no money to purchase extras. With the car always needing to be repaired, and tuition to be paid, there was no money to do my hair. So a slicked back ponytail became the norm.
My teeth began to turn inward when my back molars grew in. I kept my full lips shut tight to hide my ugly smile. At 12, I shot up like a weed, growing several inches in a year. (I still have the stretch marks on the inside of my legs from that growth spurt. ) That year, I was smashed in the face by a soccer ball during PE, leaving me with a partially detached retina. It took time for my eyes to heal, but my vision was never the same. I was left with a weak eye. Although I was loved the voice deep inside began to chant, “ugly, ugly, ugly.”I now wore glasses to compliment my thick uni-brow. The teenage girls around me blossomed and grew into themselves, while I became a wallflower. Now words came back in full force, “You’re not pretty. You’re ugly.” I was drowning inside. I felt worthless. Because I wasn’t a behavior problem, and I performed well in school, it was easy not to recognize the amount of pain I was in. Few people realized just how much I was was hurting. I wanted to escape so I turned to books. I’d read for hours; living in between the pages of a good book. I wrote a number of short stories where I was the heroine, because I knew that in real life, I never would be. When I had too much pent up anxiety, I’d dance in the kitchen, wearing holes in my socks as I pretend to be any other person but myself. My mother, saw the light leave my eyes, and how I hid my smile. She knew I didn’t like my smile. The first thing she did when she graduated from college was to make me an appointment with the orthodontist. (See, awesome mom, right?) I was now the awkward, tall, willowy thin teenager with braces. However, I was so proud of those braces!! And boy did I smile.My Aunt Barbara (who I’ve recently lost to cancer) took great interest in me. She studied the Bible with me and began taking me to her Kingdom Hall. When I was 13, she took me to New York to visit Bethel. It changed my life. The friends in her congregation became a great source of encouragement to me, and I slowly began to blossom. Still, the voice would often taunt me, “you’re ugly.”
However, with help from my family and the friends of my congregation, I found self-validation and self-worth. I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was 15 years old and began teaching Bible truths in the ministry. I loved it. You see, when I was preaching or teaching, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I only cared that others understood what I was saying. I was over zealous at times, but time and maturity have balanced me out.Right before high school school graduation, I received a college scholarship. I remembered Mrs. Pyle’s words and I thought about teaching, but my parents encouraged me to pursue something else. “Teacher’s are not paid enough money. You should get a degree in business,” Dad suggested. So I did. After 4 years of hard work, I graduated from college with my Bachelors of Business Science in Marketing from the University of Texas at Arlington. I was employed at a local hotel with the prospect of being an event coordinator. Two short months later, my boss made romantic advances toward me, rubbing my shoulders suggestively. I jerked away from him and he used a minor mishap as a reason to fire me the very next day. I didn’t fight back. I was too embarrassed like many young women often are.Jason, a young man in my congregation, heard that I had lost my job. He knew I was embarrassed and ashamed. He looked thoughtfully at me as we worked together in the ministry. “Jenna,” Jason asked gently, “why aren’t you working with children? You love children. You’re an excellent regular pioneer. You’re so happy when you’re explaining things to others. You should teach. You should do what makes you happy.”
Again, the memory came back from 2nd grade, when Mrs. Pyle said me, “Sweetie, you should be a teacher when you grow up.” Perhaps Jason was right. Perhaps I should be a teacher. I already had my bachelor’s degree. All I needed was my teaching certification. But what if I hated it? What if I failed? So many what ifs, but I knew that I had to try. That night I went home and applied to be a substitute teacher. I was ecstatic when the school district hired me a week later.
After Substitute Teacher Orientation, I was given my first teaching assignment. Early one March morning, I quietly walked into the classroom. It felt like entering a long lost world. The desks were so small! I set my things down, walked nostalgically around the room taking it all in- the alphabet, bulletin boards, markers, crayons, scissors, glue, and art paper. I recalled how safe I felt at school when I was a child. I remembered how happy I was to learn something new each day. I was home.
Finally, I went to stand at the classroom door to wait for my students to arrive. I was nervous but so excited as I greeted them one by one. As the day went on, I was able to help, to explain, to teach– and I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. The destructive voice was silenced, and I found peace. And in that moment, I knew. I knew that I was meant to be be a teacher. I love teaching- both ABC’s and Bible truths. I love to demonstrate, show, explain, share- to impart. For it is when I’m helping others that I am at my best. I feel useful. There is no time to dwell on the little voice that says “you’re ugly” when I’m busy helping others. I strive to recreate the safe environment that was given to me when I was small and in desperate need of love.
After that first day as a substitute teacher, I went back to college to earn my Texas Teaching Certifications in Elementary Education, English Second Language, and Gifted Talented Studies. I cannot thank Jason (who is now my husband) enough for encouraging me to do what makes me happy. My parents have watched me grow. They often tell me how proud they are that I discovered what makes me the happiest. They’re glad that I choose to become an educator.
This is the life lesson that I wish to share with you. Do what makes you happy, and you’ll feel beautiful on the inside. That is something that no one can take away from you. Find your passion! I love teaching Bible truths and I love being in the classroom with my little ones. (Even on those days when I want to pull my hair out due to their poor behavior.) Still the next day I come back for more. I know that they may not remember everything I’ve said, but they’ll remember the love I’ve shown. My first class of students are graduating high school this year. I have had many come back and give me hugs. They say thank you to me, but it’s really me who owes them thanks- for in teaching others I’ve found myself.