Today, I gave a speech on the topic of What Matters to Me to my college. Below is a copy of that speech. No comedy. All heart. Enjoy.
On May 15, 2020, I woke up to a message on Facebook. My childhood friend Misty had messaged me to tell me that Mrs. Hiles had died. It caught me off guard. I wasn’t necessarily expecting the message, even though Mrs. Hiles was in her nineties. After getting the message, I immediately texted my little brother to tell him the news. Like me, he was surprised. The world had just lost an incredible human being.
Mrs. Hiles was my first grade teacher, and of all of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life, she was the one I cared about the most. Ask anyone, and they’ll probably tell you of a teacher who made a difference in their life, the one who pushed and inspired them. Mrs. Hiles was that teacher for me and countless others.
Myra Hiles had been teaching since 1945. Even after retiring in 1987, she stuck with education as a substitute teacher. Every one of my four siblings had Mrs. Hiles as a substitute. My little brother loved her, for many of the same reasons I did. She managed to drive my two sisters crazy, though, because she never called them by their names. They were always Mindy. But they loved her as well.
It was hard not to love Mrs. Hiles. She was the kind of teacher who inspired a love of learning, and for a first grade student, it set the course of my life. In multiple ways. She would read to us every day, mainly from Raggedy Ann and Andy books, her favorite. When I wanted to stay inside for recess and read instead of playing, she would sometimes let me. Every Friday, she’d pick a student, and the entire class would write stories about the student and the adventures they had. Those were my favorite days. She instilled within me a love of reading and writing that I carry to this day. Without her, I can’t say that I would have written the novel that I’m now trying to get published.
Why is Mrs. Hiles so important to me? I am a first generation college student—the second oldest of five—who came from a family that lived in extreme poverty. The odds were stacked against me. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. From an early age, my mom had big plans for me. She regularly told me that I needed to work hard in school so I could get good grades to earn scholarships so I could go to college. That was an intimidating set of goals for a small child. Mrs. Hiles inspired a love of learning within me so strong that my mom’s plans didn’t seem so worrisome for me. Without Mrs. Hiles, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today. Because of her, I worked hard and got scholarships. Because of her, I majored in English with an emphasis in journalism so I could continue telling stories. Mrs. Hiles changed my life, and what I didn’t realize until I was a senior in college was that I could have that same impact on others.
During my senior year of college, I was a resident assistant. As part of my job, we were required to check in with the students who lived on our floor to make sure they were doing okay and to keep them aware of activities happening on campus. Next door to me lived a room of softball players, and due to practice, they were rarely at home when I would stop by their room to check in. As finals week wrapped up, and students moved out, I came home from an exam to find one of my roommates holding a note for me. “One of the girls next door dropped this off,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I opened the note and read it. While I can’t remember it word for word, I still remember the gist of what it said. The note started with a thank you. Apparently, in my weekly checkups, I had managed to make a connection with her, even though we had rarely seen one another in person. That connection managed to keep her from dropping out of college and moving back home to Washington state when she felt lost and alone. I was shocked. Simply by doing my job, I managed to positively impact someone else’s life. In that moment, it was hard not to think of Mrs. Hiles and impact she had upon my life. It was then I realized that some people in some jobs have the power to profoundly change someone’s life for the better. Mrs. Hiles opened the doors to education for me, and as a result, I kept someone from dropping out of college.
At that time, I had been debating what to do with the rest of my life. I had been accepted into a media law program at the University of Miami. Meanwhile, my classmates were taking jobs at area newspapers, something I could have done as well. But neither of those things sounded fulfilling to me. I loved being an RA. Maybe I could work in high education. I spent the next two months studying abroad, and I used that time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Mrs. Hiles had profoundly changed my life. Without her influence, I never would have gone to college, made lifelong friends, and had life-changing experiences. Now, I was in a situation where I had done the same thing for someone else, and I could do the same for so many others. By the time I came back to the United States, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to give back as a way of thanking Mrs. Hiles for making a difference in my life.
In all of my years as a student, I have been lucky enough to encounter multiple people with the spirit of Mrs. Hiles. There was Mrs. Redding, my high school English teacher; Dr. Thorne, one of my journalism professors; Dr. LaNasa, who taught me to love history of higher education; and most recently, Dr. Katy Jaekel, the chair of my dissertation committee. Without Dr. Jaekel’s guidance and support, I wouldn’t be the first doctor in my family. In education, of course.
Since graduating from college in 2001, I have spent all but two years working in higher education. I took two years off to work for The Kansas City Star to try my hand at journalism, but I found that I missed students too much. Over 18 years in higher education, I have worked hard to give students experiences they may never have had otherwise. Of course, that’s why I prefer to work at community colleges. I relate to the students, many of whom are first generation like me. These students deserve to have their dreams come true just like I did. They deserve to meet their own Mrs. Hiles, who can help them along their journey, or in some cases, help open their eyes to a new path waiting for them to travel.
I’m fortunate that, in my current role, I get to partner with faculty to offer co-curricular experiences to students. So many times, I have heard faculty say that their students have been able to do something they have never done before, often things we take for granted, like visiting a museum or going to see a play. We’re giving them opportunities they may not have otherwise been able to do. I’ve always heard that education opens doors, and trust me, it opened many doors for me over the years. For our students, it’s opening doors they never thought were possible. And with our support, we can encourage them to open doors to whole new lives for them and their families.
As educators, we all want what’s best for our students, so why not be Mrs. Hiles for students when they need it most? One person has the power to make great change in the life of someone else. So think back. Who was your Mrs. Hiles? Who impacted your life in such a way that you want to give back to others the same way? Let that person be your guide as you work. Live life in such a way that, one day, your former students will look at you the same way I and so many others looked at Mrs. Hiles. Be that one person who changes someone’s life for the better.