Words Matter: How Encouraging Teachers Can Change the Course of Their Students’ Futures

My parents were immigrants from Mexico, who worked hard to provide for me and my four siblings. I grew up in East San Jose; I attended our local traditional public schools. In elementary school, I received many awards for my academic achievements, but once I began my middle school journey, everything changed. My interest and focus went from doing well in school to worrying about being accepted by my peers.

My middle school did not motivate me to think about higher education, let alone my elementary school. I fell to the pressure of being accepted by my friends and trying to fit in. I didn’t want my “friends” to think I was a nerd by continuing to get good grades, so I didn’t try hard, but I knew that I couldn’t flunk a class because my dad would be very upset and I did not want my dad to punish me. So instead, I settled for C’s.

My freshman year in high school was one of transition, I attended a different high school than my friends from middle school, so I had to make new friends. Again I was not motivated to do my best in school or even think about college. I look back now and feel I was just another student in the hallway, the school didn’t do anything to ensure I achieved my full potential. Again, I wanted to fit in so I didn’t put a lot of effort into studying, but there is one incident with a science teacher that I never forget and the reason why I did not want my children to attend the schools that I had attended.

I disliked science my freshman year. I am not sure if it was the subject or if it was the teacher, but I struggled with science. During that school year, I learned about a field trip to one of our local community colleges through one of the school clubs. I wanted to go on the field trip more to get out of school than to learn about college, but nonetheless, I went to each of my classes to get permission slip signed.

My science teacher looked at the permission slip and told me, “Why do you want to go? it’s not like you will be going to college…” I remember that I was shocked by his comment, and I didn’t know how to react. The science teacher did not sign my permission slip, and I was not able to attend the field trip.

I didn’t tell my parents or anyone about the incident. I felt that my parents wouldn’t understand or that they wouldn’t know what to do, since they trusted that the school was providing the best education for me at the time. But looking back, I realize that I was in my freshman year, and I still had the chance if given the opportunity or if someone would have reassured me that it was possible to turn things around and strive to do my best to get into college, a four year college.

My teacher discouraged me and that made me mad, but I didn’t know at the time how to react to it. I did not try my best in high school, but I did take business and accounting courses in high school, which helped me to seek my career path. I attended Heald Business College after high school and received my associate’s degree in accounting and started working in high tech companies immediately after receiving my degree. At Heald, I met two friends who had similar experiences as I did, and we ended working together at a high tech company, in the accounting department.

Soon after, we knew that we needed a bachelor’s degree if we wanted to continue moving up in that field, so we enrolled together at University of Phoenix. It was a fast paced program for working adults and we graduated together with our bachelor’s degree in accounting from University of Phoenix, while working full-time, raising our children full-time and attending school full-time. We motivated each other and supported each other through college. It made me realize that what we needed in our K-12 schools was an opportunity to think about higher education at a young age and support the goal of getting into college during our adolescent years, when so many young people can easily fall behind, just like I did.

We need our schools to provide high quality education with high expectations so that our youth can be successful. Our youth need school leaders who believe in them, who will support them to ensure that they are reaching their full potential. I have attended board meetings where a member of the board who is also Latino has said, “I understand your petition, but I just don’t understand how our youth will get there…” She was referring to a charter petition with high expectations for high school graduation requirements. Yes, our children can get there with the support of their school leaders, teachers, and parents.

Every child has the potential to succeed academically, they just need educators and other adults in their lives to believe in them, to encourage them, and to support them every step of the way. I know that my K-12 education experience could have been different. I needed school leaders and teachers who believed in me. Our public schools should encourage us ALL to do our best and motivate us all to attend higher education. Even still, I know that my education path was in God’s plan so that I can learn through my experiences and allow me to be able to advocate for equity in our public education system in San Jose.

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Lety Gomez

Lety Gomez

Lety Gómez was born and raised in East San Jose. She is married with three children. She is proud to be the first in her family to attend college and receive a bachelor’s degree. When she was a teenager, Fr. Mateo Sheedy was the pastor of her parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus. She fondly remembers his passion for social justice, especially justice for the immigrant community in San Jose and ensuring that the parish youth had access to high quality education. Fr. Mateo instilled in her his passion for social justice, but for many years it was kept unlit, deep inside of her. It wasn’t until her youngest daughter was enrolled at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in 2014 that her passion for social justice lit up. Thanks to the Rocketship parent organizer at that time, Lety received training and the tools to use her voice for social justice and learned about community organizing. She is proud to be one of the many parents who worked hard to open their school, knowing that the kids needed and deserved a better public school. That struggle is why they named their school Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep. “Fuerza” is the Spanish word for force, strength, or power. Her passion for advocating for equity in education has allowed her to be a voice for other parents in her community who seek high quality education options. In 2014, she chaired the first parent-led Mayoral candidates forum in San Jose, where she realized the power parents have to create change in their communities. She wants to share her story with other parents in an effort to motivate them to get involved so they can advocate together, because united, they can make a change in the educational system and in their communities. In 2020 Lety moved to Texas, where she continues to advocate for equity in public education and school choice across our country.

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