In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Jake Giles, a member of our User Research team, shares his personal story of an educator from his past, showing that everything you do leaves a lasting impression.
My small hometown of Kewanee, Illinois, is known as “The Hog Capital of the World.” At the end of summer, people come cross-county to celebrate “Hog Days” by riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, eating giant funnel cakes, and wearing all sorts of clever, pig-themed shirts. With a population of a little over 13,000 people, Kewanee epitomizes those small towns brought to life in country songs. I spent six years of my young life looking forward to Hog Days, completing my primary and secondary education, and imagining a life that would take me away from the monotony of drive-thru dinners and conservative values.
I made plenty of friends who helped me escape the sometimes claustrophobic mindset created by a life surrounded by cornfields. As I got older, school became central to constructing my identity and figuring out what I wanted from life. When I started high school at Wethersfield Jr./Sr. High, I had the privilege of being a Teacher’s Assistant in our office. During this block of time, I helped with morning announcements, administrative duties, and coffee runs for our principal (large coffee with a little hot chocolate at the top). However, the best part was reporting to Debbie Spets, or Mrs. Spets, as our small community called her.
Mrs. Spets was a secretarial machine; the staff at Wethersfield marveled at her efficiency and everyone knew she basically ran the school. Although she didn’t teach a specific subject, she taught the most important things you learn at that age: how to be a compassionate adult who values common sense and taking the time to laugh. In addition to her duties at Wethersfield, Mrs. Spets miraculously found time to coach girls volleyball, organize community events, and of course, be the rock of her beautiful family. Looking back, I’m amazed at how lively she was every school morning. If she was exhausted, she never let it show.
Being a TA in Mrs. Spets’ office meant we helped her knock out her daily tasks, but also found plenty of time to recap the previous night’s episode of ER. One of my favorite memories from working in the office was first seeing the hysterical “Grape Stomping Lady” video. My best friend Kristina and I cracked up to the point of uncontrollable tears. Mrs. Spets could barely get through the morning announcements because of her giggle fit.
It wasn’t hard for my teachers and peers to see I was different from other students. I’m fortunate to have an amazing mother and supportive sister who celebrated those differences, and embraced the eccentricities other kids saw as strange. Mrs. Spets also recognized this and never treated me as an outsider. If anything, she seemed to see past me not being a star athlete and instead saw me as someone with superior emotional intelligence. I felt like her equal, even at 16, and knew I could trust her with the craziest thoughts usually confined to my head.
By senior year, I felt comfortable in myself and ready for college. Ever since a 6th grade trip to Chicago, I knew I’d end up beginning my adult life in one of the greatest cities in the world. After being accepted into Loyola University Chicago, my Kewanee days were numbered; I’d have one last Hog Days before I called The Windy City my new home. Before that, my friends and I had one last lunch with Mrs. Spets. We recalled our favorite memories from high school, discussed what college would be like, and promised to stay in touch so we could do lunch again whenever we came home for the holidays.
My family moved away from Kewanee, as did most of my high school friends, leaving me no reason to return, aside from nostalgia. Because of this, I never scheduled that follow-up lunch with Mrs. Spets.
Mrs. Spets passed away last year after a hard-fought battle with cancer. I found out right before I started interviewing with Edmodo. On the way to my interview, I spoke out loud to Mrs. Spets as the elevator doors opened. “Can you even believe this, Mrs. Spets?!” I exclaimed, laughing at how crazy it was that I was considering leaving my comfortable life in Chicago for a new life on the West Coast. Still, I can’t think of anyone else outside of my immediately family who would understand my quest for adventure better than her. Because of her and the out-of-class lessons Mrs. Spets taught me, I’m fearless in ways a textbook could never teach.