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Jim Williams: Reaching one student makes it all worthwhile

My wife and I recently went to a local mall to do some shopping and “catch” a movie. While walking to the theater, I was tapped lightly on the shoulder by a young man. At first I did not recognize him. As we were talking, I was frantically trying to remember who he was and from where I knew him. Suddenly his name came to me.

“Sam! I can’t believe it’s you. You’re so grown up. I never would have recognized you if you hadn’t stopped me.”

Now, to tell the rest of this story, I must go back more than a decade. At that time, I “shifted gears” and left an almost 40-year career in retail sales. Working weekends, holidays and all sorts of ungodly hours had reached a peak. To be quite candid, I was burned out. I’d had enough.

Frankly, though, I felt I was too young to retire and, besides, I enjoyed working. Then, just by chance, a good friend of mine who had been teaching for many years suggested that I become a substitute teacher in the Buffalo School District. After discussing this with my wife, I said “why not”?

To me, this was a perfect fit. I have always enjoyed working with and mentoring young people. I am a product of the Buffalo schools, and have often reflected on how rewarding it was to be taught by teachers who, in many ways, guided and shaped my formative years.

I should mention here that I wrote a My View article shortly after I began teaching regarding my early experiences. My goal then, as well as now, is to reach out and hopefully make a difference in the life of at least one child.

Now, let’s get back to the mall and that young man who took the time to remember me. Sam was one of my very first students. He was a challenging one, I must admit. We exchanged introductions and chatted with his family. Sam turned to my wife and, motioning to me, said, “He was my favorite teacher. He kept me out of trouble.”

Then, addressing me, Sam said, “Mr. Williams, even though I was argumentative, disobedient and disruptive at times, you were patient and understanding and you kept me on the right track. You kept me out of trouble.”

That moment, for me, was the fulfillment of my goal. I had made a difference in the life of this young man. This spontaneous, unsolicited comment was the most gratifying experience I have encountered in my teaching career.

I have been substitute teaching in the Buffalo Public Schools for 12 years and I am still energized by the experience. Teaching in Buffalo, where there is a diverse ethnicity, presents many challenges. Oftentimes there are barriers that need to be overcome before instruction and learning can begin, whether it is language, cultural or disciplinary issues.

Teachers and educators can take pride in what they do to shape students’ lives. With the challenges that teachers face on a daily basis, it is rewarding to know that teachers can make a positive difference in the lives of their students.

I hope I will be able to teach for many years to come and to continue with my own personal goal of making a difference in the lives of students.

And to Sam, who stopped me that afternoon, I say, “Thank you. You made teaching worthwhile.”