It was the first Monday of a new school year, and as usual, I was dreading the back-to-school routines and reunions that often made me feel alone and frightened. My experiences in the district, and in this particular school, were mixed. Some days I was everyone’s first and best Black friend. While on other days, I was socially isolated, teased, and bullied.

I took a deep breath as I entered my middle school honors English class, expecting, as usual, to be the only Black student. I had heard the teacher was tough, and I wasn’t looking forward to the ongoing task of proving my intelligence. However, my mom and dad explained to me regularly that getting an excellent education was what they prioritized. As products of segregated schools in the South, being called names and having few friends were simply minor inconveniences.

I entered and sat down. That’s when the teacher looked up and, with a furrowed brow, stated, “There must be some mistake, this is an honors class. Please go back to the counselor’s office and have your schedule corrected.”

You are probably wondering where I’m going with this story on Teacher Appreciation Week. This doesn’t sound like a positive story; this doesn’t sound like being thankful. But, in fact, I am.

After my schedule was confirmed (and after my parents came to the school AGAIN to point out the racial biases that, along with my siblings, I faced on a daily basis), this teacher taught me. She never apologized. She moved on. She taught me to diagram a sentence; she taught me how to read deeply and how to analyze texts. She challenged me, along with my classmates, to perform at high levels. She didn’t hand out high grades; you had to earn them. I worked hard and did earn them.

So, my message for Teacher Appreciation Week is that I want to thank this teacher for not only being an excellent English teacher, but I also want to thank her for what I learned about myself in the process. I confirmed that I had the right and the academic ability to thrive even in less than optimal conditions. I learned how to write clearly. I learned how to handle pressure. I learned that I don’t need to be liked to learn—just give me the access and the opportunity to learn and I can persist. I learned that teachers are human and that grace is important in how we learn, live, and forgive.

We all bring specific experiences and opinions to the work that we do every day that may impact how we connect, support, and collaborate as human beings. My teacher did, as well. But instead of holding on to these things, she pushed the class, she pushed me, and she pushed every learner to understand that we can each do more than we believe is possible.

So again, on Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank this teacher. Although she never told me what she wrote, she submitted a letter of recommendation for me to participate in a high school program for talented students. I continued to love English language arts and went on to make it my major in college.

Yes, I am grateful for each and every experience I had in the classroom and in my school communities. They weren’t always positive, but they contributed to who I am today. These experiences are what fuel my passion and my drive for equitable access and opportunities for all students.