Niki Fitzgerald’s story as told to Gabriella Fluhler
Just another move.
Just another school.
Nothing phased me anymore. I caused a lot of trouble in my old life, in Florida, and everyone at my new school knew it. Between homelessness and coming from a life of drugs and violence, I had negativity in my heart and trusted no one. I was disappointed in the move the minute I heard about the new school.
Just another school.
Just another group of adults who think they know who I already am.
I’m sure they knew some of it. The drugs. The abuse. Some things you can’t hide, people talk. I was familiar with sneaking around and running from people, too. Home-life was bad but the foster system, or being truly alone, would be worse. It was a dark time and a dark life. I’m sure they knew things were not the best for me.
But they really didn’t know. They didn’t know about my learning disabilities. As if showing up to school every day being expected to cause trouble wasn’t bad enough, being ADHD and trying to pay attention in a class full of people with those expectations was almost impossible. My grades weren’t good. My behavior was bad because they told me it should be. Things weren’t good.
Mr. Jones changed it all. It’s like he knew I needed him, and he took everything people at school thought they knew and turned it upside down.
He taught everything in an exciting way for me. He made me get up, and move, and show what I was thinking. Interacting with the material, with classmates. I made friends. I spoke my mind. I had things to do with my body while I was learning so I wasn’t sitting still. My mind couldn’t sit still. He knew the actual material was easy for me, but focusing long enough to show it was the trick. But he did it.
One day he told me he’d teach me how to referee soccer games for the school. He said he’d pay me and I could earn money and we’d have a soccer team. Being involved with the team was amazing. I learned about the game and the rules. I couldn’t play on the team because of my behavior at school, but refereeing was close enough. I loved every second.
Between refereeing and the fun days in Mr. Jones’s class, I was happy. I loved refereeing because I felt like I had actual control of the situation I was in. I even got to earn money doing it, which was great after growing up with no money to call my own. My behavior improved and the school administration saw that.
Things were better at school. My classes were so easy. With Mr. Jones helping me show the other teachers that I knew the material, I was bored. I decided to go to the guidance counselor and ask to be put in accelerated classes.
“Nobody asks for more work,” they told me. “You just want to be social with the older kids.”
My feelings were hurt. They called my mother and she told them to ask Mr. Jones about my behavior and my learning, because she couldn’t tell them.
Like always, Mr. Jones changed things. He told them how I was learning, and how the classes were easy. He told them about my refereeing and how I was responsible and making money and not causing any problems. And . . . they did it. They put me in the advanced classes. First one class and then, as time went on, they let me into the others when they saw that I actually wanted to learn. I could learn, I was challenged, I was happy.
They told me I could participate in sports now. I tried out for the track team and I got on. Long distance wasn’t my thing, but I was really good at the hurdles and the shot put. I tried the longer races but they weren’t where I really could shine. I loved knowing I earned my place on the track.
Mr. Jones’s belief in me followed me into 8th grade. I got involved in more sports, my grades stayed up, I was in the accelerated classes, and my behavior was always good. I got into Key Club as a high school student, which opened the door for me even more.
Mr. Jones constantly advocating for me, standing behind me and seeing that my past didn’t have to dictate my future led to the person I am today. I made it as a homeless child of addiction to graduate college with multiple degrees, win many community service and professional awards, and continue to have a passion for education and learning.
As a teacher now, I have been able to take the impact Mr. Jones had on me and pass it on to my students. I view each student as an individual and pour my heart and soul into providing them the greatest education possible, no matter how they learn or what they come from.
I hope to be the light for students the way Mr. Jones was always a light for me. Without him, I would have never made it out of the darkness.
Niki Fitzgerald : I am currently an Early Childhood Education Coalition Coordinator , Outreach Specialist and Family Support Coordinator for Huffer Child Care Resource and Referral. I am an active downtown Muncie resident. I am currently pursuing a triple Masters degree in Education with a scholarship awarded by Early Learning Indiana. My passion is to transform the lives of families and communities through the use of education and advocacy.
Gabriella Fluhler: Gabriella Fluhler is a 20 year old Ball State Student studying Pre-Veterinary Biology and Psychology. She has passions for teaching, writing and STEM outreach in the community. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with her daughter, Leah.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.