One Student at a Time
A knock at the door can change everything
by Melito Ramirez, 2021 Recognizing Inspiring School Employees (RISE) Award Winner
I was born in Houston, Texas and raised in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. My parents were farm laborers, working in the fields and picking all sorts of different crops for all my young life. My sister and I were used to getting up early, around 4 a.m., and riding out to work with our parents to help with whatever we could at a very young age. I remember watching the sun come up in the morning and wishing I was still in my warm bed. As we got older, we were allowed to harvest our own rows of crops and that gave us a feeling of maturity and responsibility. It also motivated us to do a good job or we would go back to just helping mom. We took pride in that!
My parents divorced when I was about nine years old. My mother raised my sister and I alone from that point on. Times were very hard for my small family, and we worked very hard to just have some food on the table. Back then, resources were very limited and dependent on where you lived.
The only work my mother knew was field work or working in packing houses, and she did that all her life. She only attended school up to the 5th grade, but she always instilled in us the importance of getting an education. My mother never learned to read, write, or speak English. She also never learned how to drive a car, so we always had to walk or ask people for rides to get around. By the time I turned 12, I was in the fields working with my mom every weekend and every summer to help pay bills and buy food.
At 14, I took it upon myself to write a letter to Kika de La Garza, Congressman of the 16th District of the State of Texas. I asked him for a recommendation letter in support of a special driver’s license as I was the oldest in my family and we lived about 20 miles from the nearest town and, in case of a medical emergency, I could drive my family to town instead of calling for help. I was completely surprised when I received a response from him and that he supported my concern and gave me that recommendation letter along with his blessing. I passed both the written and the driving tests on first try and was given a special driver’s license to drive at the age of 14.
From that point on, I would run the errands and even drive long distances. We were no longer dependent on others. Every spring, I would drive and we would migrate along with other families from Texas to Washington state. In late fall, we would make our way back to Texas. I left home at 16 but continued migrating with my family until the age of 19.
In my freshman year of high school, I dropped out with the intention of helping my mom earn some extra money. One day in particular, I stayed home because I was sick and did not go to work. It had been about 2 weeks since I had been to school. Suddenly, I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and there stood a very tall, slim, white man with big boots, and a big cowboy hat. As I looked up to see his face, I realized that it was my history teacher Mr. Kirby. My mouth dropped open, and I thought to myself, “What in the world is he doing here?” In the poor part of town? In my neighborhood?
In retrospect, maybe that is what attracted me to the work that I find myself doing today. That moment when I realized that someone had taken time out of their day to check up on me, to see how I was doing. I still carry with me today the impact he made on me that day. The direct, honest, respectful way he talked to me is the same way I speak to all of my students.
I think that is the one thing that connects me to all my students and their families. They see me in their homes, visiting with their parents and families, sharing some food or drink, and having important conversations about how we at school can help them be successful.
Once you create that bond, the job becomes easy. You begin to build the relationship. It may take time, but once you have their respect and they know that they have someone in their life that they can count on, not much can stop that student from becoming who they want to be.
I will never forget Mr. Kirby saying, “Where have you been and what do you think you are doing?” It took me a bit to respond, as I was in some sort of shock, but I finally said, “Helping my mom work, but I am sick today.”
He looked at me and said, “You are coming back to school. You will work for me on my farm after school and on weekends for a fair wage. After work, I will help you with your homework.”
Over the last 40 years, I have thought of him often and have come to realize that moment is why I do what I do and why it comes so easy to me. So many connections made, so many lives that have crossed my path, so many great relationships, and so many great memories, and it all started with a knock at my door.
As a school staff member, a teacher, counselor, administrator, or classroom aide, we can be one of the most important parts of a student’s young life. Our passion to support, encourage, and motivate can be infectious and inspiring to any student we connect with. We are the tutors, the enablers, and caregivers combined. We all can make a difference one student at a time
This story was originally published in From Seed to Apple, OSPI’s annual collection of inspirational stories from Washington’s classrooms, featuring the Teachers, Principals, and Classified School Employees of the Year. Learn more on our website.