Who has made a difference in your life and shaped you into the person you are today?
This question I am posing will require some thought, so don’t just react with a name; think about it for a while. For me, there are many people, some more impactful than others, and some who actually were negative forces in my life, but that doesn’t make them less impactful to who I became and why.
I will tell you about 2 of these people. I will begin with my 1st-and-2nd-grade teacher, Mrs Emily Spencer. I went to a 2-room public schoolhouse. Mrs. Spencer taught the students in 1st and 2nd grades in one room, and Mrs Lucille Price taught 3rd, 4th and 5th grades in the room across the hall. The music room was upstairs and there was a large lawn behind the school for recess. There were no more than 30 students in the school in any given year.
Mrs Spencer was charming, soft spoken, a good listener, and wanted each of us to know that we had the power within ourselves to do ANYTHING and be ANYTHING we wanted to be. She would tell us stories of great leaders and their modest backgrounds as examples for us. She made me want to learn as much as I could. I was 5 -years-old when I started 1st grade, and because the students in 2nd grade were sitting only 5 feet from me, I learned even more when Mrs. Spencer was instructing them on their lesson plans.
In 2002, I decided to write her a thank-you letter to tell her what a great start she gave me on the path to learning and how she encouraged me to believe that I could become whatever I wanted. Even though I knew she was up-to-date about my career (because my mother regularly ran into her in town), I still felt compelled to put on paper, with a real ballpoint pen, my appreciation for what she had done for me and countless other children who were lucky enough to have her as their first teacher. She promptly wrote back, thanking me for taking the time to tell her this, and how proud she was of all that I had accomplished. Before the mailman delivered that letter to me 2 days later, she died in her sleep, having had a massive stroke. I was stunned when my mom called and told me the news. She told me how much her family appreciated me writing to her, and that it had really lifted her spirits and confirmed that she had been a good teacher. Wow.
Another significant person in my life, molding me and guiding me, has been my mom, who now is 92 years old. Some of you met her 2 years ago when she attended the AONN+ annual conference in Texas, and she and I did a fireside chat session one evening. She has always given me unconditional love. Always. (My dad’s love was conditional though.) She, too, told me I could be anything and accomplish anything. When I started 9th grade, rather than going to Chestertown High School I was re-zoned to Rock Hall High School. My brother, who was a senior, got to stay at Chestertown High School. These 2 high schools were rivals. It was just like West Side Story. I was devastated about this zoning decision, which to me at age 12, made no sense. My first day at school, I opened my locker and found a dead rat inside with a tag around its neck that said, “Go back to Chestertown.” I never told a soul about this until I was in my 50s.
There was no need for a guidance counselor because the expectation was that the boys would be farmers or fishermen, and the girls would become wives of farmers or fishermen. I planned to be a nurse. I was friendless for 4 years. I did become a cheerleader for the basketball team. Unfortunately, my brother played on the rival team. My mom attended each of the games and would sit on the Chestertown side for the 1st half and the Rock Hall side for the 2nd half. My mom remained my cheerleader, of sorts. She consoled me when I would tell her how out of place I felt in this world, how frustrated I was at being bullied because I wanted to be on an academic track of learning, and feeling misunderstood by many of my teachers. There were no Mrs Spencers in that environment.
My mom saw in me what I, at times, had trouble seeing in myself—the ability to achieve anything I set out to do. And I believe because of her unwavering support and unconditional love, I have accomplished more things than even I originally anticipated would be possible. And she remains my cheerleader. I recall as I was writing my first book 25 years ago and started telling others about it, they quickly told me that it would “never be published” because I was a first-time author without a recognized name. But when I told my mom about the book she said, “I can’t wait to see it in the bookstore windows everywhere.” That was 20 books ago. Now I turn down publishers’ offers to write books. Go figure.
I am telling you this story because we all have people in our lives who have shaped and sometimes reframed us into who we have become. Finding a dead rat in my locker didn’t make me want to fit in and act like others at that school; it instead drove me harder to surpass whatever challenges came my way so that I could remain focused on my goal to become a nurse and really make a difference in how patients are cared for and to ensure they receive patient-centered care.
For the people you identify in your own life who have been instrumental in influencing your career journey, let them know it. I nearly missed telling Mrs Spencer by 48 hours. So don’t delay doing it. Start a retrospective journal and record moments that impacted you because of what someone did or said. How did that impact you?
I have learned, as I got older, the importance of taking even bad situations, horrific painful situations, and finding some element for the better. Even when what was done was awful, and most of the time unforgiveable, it carried with it an element that in some way altered who I am and how I look at the world today.
BTW, during the 4 years I was at Rock Hall High School we never won a single basketball game. Not even close. I didn’t cheer less loudly and I never missed a game. We never scored more than 10 points in a game and each of those points I celebrated with great big cheers and got the other girls to join me. And I never gave up hope that we just might win the next game. One of those players was likely the person or people who put that dead rat in my locker. I never focused on that. I focused on what my job was--to root for this team. They deserved to be cheered on, just like my mom has cheered all my life for me.