The Teacher Who Taught Me to Shine

I was different. She said that was okay.

By Dulce Zamora

I long wished for a perfect role model. Now, I see the village of women filling that role. I’ll share some awe-inspiring figures in my circle. Hope we can all rediscover the great women in our lives.

On my first day of school in the U.S., I made the mistake of standing out. I was 10 years old. The 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Omega Lewis, asked me to read aloud a passage from a book. I should have recited the words in the same soft or monotone manner as the other students had done. I should have stayed in my seat. I should have slumped down the chair or rested my chin on the desk, as my classmates had done. Instead, my years of strict schooling in a Philippine Catholic school kicked in. As soon it was my turn to read, I automatically stood up, straightened my back with the book held to eye level, and projected my voice with clear, expressive diction.

Of course, my classmates laughed. Mrs. Lewis, a tall, buxom African-American lady with red-rimmed glasses, looked thoughtfully my way. She might have said something to the class, but all I could remember was her warm smile. Perhaps that’s when she got the idea to cast me as narrator in the school’s production of Billy Goat’s Gruff. At the end of the play, she gave out trophies, Academy Award style. I earned the “Best Actress” prize. She presented me with a gold crown crafted with shiny foil and glittery beads and a hand-sewn sheer cape with gold embellishments. It may sound over the top, but it did wonders for my confidence. The message of the moment was clear: It’s okay to stand out. It’s okay to be different.

Mrs. Lewis provided me with more opportunities to shine. She cast me as “Annie” in the school musical and gave me numerous solo numbers in other shows. She loved to put on programs and I was one of her stars. At least that’s how I felt. I can’t speak for my peers who also had time in the spotlight, but, for me, she was this oft-bejeweled beam of light and nurturing force who offered a glimpse of the queen within me.

Yes, there were people who resented my time in the limelight. Once, a group of girls cornered me in the bathroom during recess, stepped on my feet, and taunted me with words such as “teacher’s pet” or “fresh off the boat.” Some students reported the incident. Mrs. Lewis opened her arms to hug me, and I immediately felt safe. She also took aside the girls who bullied me and talked with them. I don’t know what she said, but they never bothered me again. In fact, we became friends by the end of the year.

If Mrs. Lewis were alive now, I’d ask her how she handled the situation. I mean, the woman had gifts of conflict resolution and confidence building that we could sure use today!

The sting of being different and various incidences of bullying have frequently taken center stage in my life, but I’ve come to realize that the darkness does not have to be the focal point. Gloom can lead the way to radiance. Mrs. Lewis helped me see that. She saw the light in people and reflected it back to them. It’s a practice I aspire to emulate, for, decades later, I still bask the glow of her spotlight and the warmth of her embrace.

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