Rita OldhamRita Oldham is a senior at the University of Arizona, majoring in Education.

My mom was a teacher, and she would often come home from school with stories to tell. Listening to her made me feel as if I was watching a TV series. I grew to love the unique characters that filled her classroom, and I felt that I knew each one as if they were my closest friend. Yet, I rarely met them. They were simply a figure of my imagination, an idea of what I hoped them to be. Each student was different in their own way, and had their own struggles and triumphs, yet each touched my mom's heart. Somehow, despite the craziness of each day, my mom would come home inspired and reassured that she was in the right place in her life. I was in awe.

Years later, I was interning at an elementary school and I was...in agony. I wasn't sure where my mom's angel of inspiration had come from, but it was definitely not with me. Kids were flying from wall to wall. I had to jump from desk to desk, dodging the bullets of pens and pencils. I was anything but inspired. I came home exasperated, distressed, and plagued with emotional and mental fatigue. I whimpered to my mom, "I thought you said teaching was rewarding, invigorating, and life-changing. You never told me it was a fight for survival...literally!" My mom smiled at my statement, oblivious to my serious undertone. She only replied, "Stop looking for a moment of reward. The prize comes when you least expect it." And, as always, my mom was right.

It was a Saturday morning in beautiful Tucson, Arizona. I was fulfilling the requirement of an assignment by donating a few hours of my time at the University's Poetry Center. It was Family Days, and children ran down the book-filled halls with their parents not too far behind them. I was on craft patrol, bracing myself for waves of children to engulf the table I was at to cut, color, and glue to their little heart's content. In honor of the "Speak Peace" exhibit that was on display, we were encouraging students to write their dreams and ideas of peace onto colorful strips of paper that would then become a chain connecting the vision of one child to another. Older kids wrote; younger kids drew. Either way, paper and markers skid across the table like a plate on ice.

At one point, a little voice peeped up behind me and I turned to see a little boy with blond hair, and sky blue eyes. In the kindest manner fathomable, he asked, "Please miss, can I join?" I kneeled down to the polite child and asked him what his name was. He slowly yet steadily replied, "My name's Elijah. I'm 5. How old are you?" I smiled and answered and invited him to sit next to me. As if shocked to be invited, Elijah said, "Ooooh thank you so much!" It reminded me of a Shirley Temple classic where the orphan finds her family. I gently pushed him towards the table  and briefly explained the purpose of our project. Instead of the paper chain slips that I handed him, the little boy grabbed a plain white piece of paper and a blue marker. He began to look at me, then look down at his paper, then look at me again, and make a few marks on the page. When he was done, he exclaimed with a burst of excitement, "It's you and me!" I looked at his paper and sure enough, there was a spitting image of myself. I had two stringy legs, a lopsided head, a smile that overtook a crooked face, and a blue skinny body with no clothes. Next to me stood a smaller version of that image, presumably the artist himself. His tree-branch arms extended upwards, connecting with my own tree branches. "See?" he asked. "We're friends!"

Elijah handed me the marker and asked me to write his name above his figure. As I did, I asked him what school he went to. He said that he goes to school with his mommy, and he turned and pointed to a woman behind him. She was petite and young, and was pushing an even younger child in her stroller with one hand while holding onto her pregnant belly in the other. I tilted my head with curiosity and she explained that Elijah and his sister were home-schooled. I commended her for her beautiful family and to my amazement, her eldest child chimed in, "No, YOU are beautiful!" I was astonished. Sitting before me was a stranger 3 foot tall with a heart the size of a giant. He didn't care that he only just met me. He didn't care that he didn't know me. And he didn't care that I was four times his age. To Elijah, I was his new beautiful friend.

Before finishing his drawings, he and I drew a picture of his younger sister, and his baby brother that was on his way. He even cheerfully invited me to his house later that day so we could play with his trucks and puzzles. Out of all the children I had met that day, I was truly sad to see him leave. No one else had his spunky personality, his regal manners, and his superb drawing skills. No one else made me smile like Elijah did. He taught me the meaning of true happiness.

I realize now that that little boy was the reward my mother found every day in her teaching career. It isn't the profound statements, or the excellent grades, or even the stories each student creates with their lives. It's an unexplainable joy that you receive through their simple smile. It's the unfathomable inspiration you feel when you're with them. Time stops, and suddenly, nothing is important. It's the little things that make our lives valuable. For my mom, it was a classroom filled with students. For me, it was a little blond boy by the name of Elijah.

Created on: 
Monday, March 19, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents