Facilitator Yazmín Peña and I traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to visit The New Teacher Project, where we recorded stories of new and experienced teachers of Chicago Public Schools. Among our recent StoryCorps recruits was Arelys Villeda, who invited her former 8th-grade teacher, George Drase, to participate in a conversation.
To kick off their talk, George asked Arelys why she became a teacher. She smiled coyly at her former teacher and said, “I’ve always loved school supplies.”
But of course, there is more to the story than that.
Arelys grew up in Chicago, the child of a single-mother who did not speak English and worked as a domestic. At nine years old, she was responsible for writing checks to pay the bills, often standing in as a translator when her mother conducted business. Arelys recalls, “It was like I had another job in addition to school.”
Given Arelys’ socio-economic status, many assumed she would become a teen mother and drop out of school. However, Arelys refused to be discounted, and she thanked George for some sage advice he once gave her: “In eighth grade, you passed out a math test, and you knelt down next to me and said, ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you are not intelligent, especially a man.’ And those words stuck with me for the rest of my life because so many people in the world will try to bring you down. It was a formidable moment in my life.”
Arelys didn’t only complete high school; she also went on to graduate from Stanford University. Besides her love of school supplies, Arelys decided to become a teacher to help young people who are currently growing up in situations like her own. As she told George, “I think I have a deeper impact because these kids can relate to me and see me and think, she did it.”