That time my teacher looked like me
Two things about me: I’m a nerd and I love research.
It should surprise no one that I organized a surprise party for my third-grade teacher when I was eight-years old and that for the last fifteen years, I’ve been trying to find her to say thank you for the impact she had on me.
Mrs. James was the first black woman teacher I ever had—from pre-K through a doctoral degree, she was one of two. For much of a my childhood, I was a wallflower wishing to be invisible, but in her classroom, I felt seen. More than that, I saw someone who looked like me standing at the front of the room, and I was awe struck. After having her as a teacher, I never abandoned the idea of being an educator or a writer—thirty years later, I’m both.
I dug out old yearbooks, only to find none of the teacher’s first names were included. I used every tool I knew of, including calling the school district and Facebook messaging my old principal. Not knowing someone’s first name makes finding them in a large city somewhat impossible. My elementary school was attached to a military base, so everyone was transient, which makes the Alumni Facebook Group I found less odd. For a few years, I’d ask periodically if anyone knew her first name or where she was—some people shared with me how much they’d enjoyed her class, too, but no one knew, until last night when someone replied with her first name. My search clicked into to place. I’ve found her now—or, I’m pretty sure, anyway—but unfortunately, I think she died last year.
I haven’t spoken to her since I was nine years old—I know next to nothing about her, but this has me thinking a lot about representation, impact, and the people who touch our lives in pivotal ways without ever knowing. I’m thinking, too, about what it means to womxn of color to see people who look like them, how rare it can be, and why that matters for those of us writing love stories about people who look like us.
Mostly, I’m thinking, I still plan to say thank you, I just don’t know how yet.
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Denise reads romance novels, writes research papers, can be found humming "Baby Shark" long after her toddler has gone to bed, and loves ruining her character's lives but then giving them happily ever afters. She is a member of Romance Writers of America® and a 2019 Golden Heart® Finalist, and her debut novel HOW TO FAIL AT FLIRTING will be out fall 2020 from Berkley.