Let me tell you a secret about teachers: We have favorites. You had favorite teachers growing up, and we have favorite students.
My favorites tend to be the fighters — not fisticuffs, that merits no favor — but the kids with the heart of a warrior. The kids who are somehow dealt a raw hand in life, but choose to struggle against that. The kids who carry their inner demons or face their outside stressors with remarkable courage. Kids like Brittany.
When I first met Brittany, I was worried. I was charged to teach her for all four years of high school in a college-prep program focused on helping "academically average" incoming students go out as excellent students, prepared to succeed in college, usually as the first generation in their family to do so. This sounds lovely enough, but takes incredible resolve, grit and growth. I wasn't sure Brittany had it.
She was painfully shy — couldn't hold eye-contact, mumbled when talking to teachers, quickly getting red-in-the-face. When put on the spot, if she could have melted, she would have. And her academic skills were a long way from what's expected in college. But what wasn't immediately apparent about Brittany was her indomitable spirit.
School was not easy, but Brittany did everything asked of her to the best of her ability. She turned drafts of papers in early for additional feedback. She came to ask for help when she struggled. She never missed an assignment. It seemed she was on a mission.
Kids that work that hard usually know what they want. They're either chasing something — a goal, a dream, a future. Or they're running from something — a past, an environment, a burden. When Brittany's guardians met with me one day after school, I learned it was the latter.
Brittany's childhood would break most people. She had lived in a car for over a year, she had been abused, she had faced extended abject poverty. I have heard more heartbreaking stories in a decade of teaching than I'd ever imagine, and Brittany's was as difficult as any. But her aunt and uncle stepped in and adopted her out of that situation. She entered a blended family with as much love, grace and patience as any I've ever known.
Photo: The White House
With that help at home, support at school, and her own fierce determination she moved from our school's lowest track classes into honors. She took Chinese. She got involved in clubs. Classes continued to be very challenging for her, but her habits carried her through.
At the end of her sophomore year, after spending all spring fundraising with her family, Brittany got to spend a summer living in China through our district's exchange program. My wife and I were chaperones. I got to see Brittany, whose childhood had been torturous, learn tai chi, hike to ancient Taoist temples, and walk on the Great Wall of China.
When we got back to America, she kept plugging away in the classroom. She got a part-time job. She earned admission to a four-year college and, supported by the aunt and uncle who would make anything happen for their Brittany, she went away to college.
Sometimes we slip into talking about kids from poverty like they're hopeless and helpless. And we have to be careful — because they do need help and hope, but they're not just victims. Equipped with hope for their future, with a village, with a skill set, they can go out into the world and contribute to the greater good. And they often do so with a superhuman will power, work-ethic and empathy unknown to many people of privilege.
Last March I got a message from Brittany's cousin asking me to call ASAP. On the phone, I learned that she had been struck by a vehicle while out for a run off campus. Brittany clung to life long enough for her family to come and see her. And then she passed away.
I received that phone call 800 miles away, preparing to give a talk to teachers being honored in Georgia. I ran 10 miles that afternoon—running away from the reality of a tragedy so heart-wrenching, so cosmically unfair that it couldn't compute. The next morning I cried my way through telling those teachers what Brittany would have said to them—that we don't teach subjects, we teach students; that those students need to be loved before they can learn; that each of us is more than the worst thing that has ever happened to us; that we all have an opportunity and responsibility to help others believe in themselves when they can't.
A few days later I was at her viewing, surrounded by her friends and family. We told stories, like you do. Brittany had this endearing nature that coupled frequent awkward interactions—a hello hip bump, or mistimed response — that she followed with an embarrassed giggle, which was just loveable. Friends told stories about how she would send them a stream of encouraging text messages in tough times. Teachers talked about how often we would receive notes of gratitude and kindness from her.
I love teaching because students come along and leave me changed forever. Brittany showed me the remarkable resolve and power of the human spirit, and she showed me the value of helping others believe in themselves.
That night I went into my own files and found a letter Brittany gave me during that year's Christmas break. She said, in part, "You have always made me feel like I can do better things and be successful. You gave me more motivation to be successful." I hope she knew that she's done the same for me.
Sean McComb was the 2014 National Teacher of the Year
Mr. McComb and the student who inspired this piece, Brittany.