When Jennifer Adjivon arrived in her third grade classroom, she did not understand much of what her teacher, Jill Murray, was saying.
She understood one thing clearly, though: Mrs. Murray was on her side. Now, as she completes her Bachelor’s degree, Jennifer remembers vividly the impact Mrs. Murray has had on her—a testament to how the daily work of caring, effective teachers can reverberate through a lifetime.
Having arrived in The Bronx from Togo late in second grade, Jennifer had to adjust to a new culture, and to school in a new language. “I really struggled with reading,” she admits. “I remember one day I got a really bad grade, and one of my classmates laughed and was telling other people about it.”
Even more than that mortification, though, Jennifer recalls Mrs. Murray’s response. “She comforted me and talked to the whole class about that not being O.K..” Mrs. Murray’s support did not end that day. “She never made me feel like the language was any barrier, she always made time to help, and she made me feel like she would be there for me.” For the rest of elementary school, she would check in with Jennifer from time to time as she progressed.
Jennifer graduated from Sacred Heart and went on to attend St. Jean Baptiste High School in Manhattan. Her guidance counselor there happened to mention an opportunity a nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore had, for young people to submit writing about a teacher who had impacted them and, if chosen, to read their work aloud at an open mic event to which teachers were invited.
And so it was that Jennifer found herself in front of a microphone one evening, her delivery making clear what the poem she read explained: “The language that was once foreign to me is now in my control/ I have power over what once controlled me.” She explained to the audience—and to a visibly moved Mrs. Murray—that “you never let me be ridiculed for difference” and “you took your time with me.”
Even after graduating as valedictorian of her class at St. Jean Baptiste and matriculating at Hunter College, Jennifer and a friend would come back to Sacred Heart from time to time, making sure to check on Mrs. Murray. They stopped by this year too—in keeping with the school’s COVID protocols but with no intention of letting a pandemic get in the way of their connection with Mrs. Murray.
“Her big heart,” Jennifer explains, “is not something you can take for granted—her genuine love for what she does and for her students.”
This year, even more so than “regular” years, it can be easy for teachers to feel like they are not enough for the challenges before them—that they don’t know the right strategies to help every child learn as much as they should, or don’t have the time to give each child what they need. Jennifer’s reflection should give every fretting teacher pause. Because when Jill Murray welcomed a shy third grader into her class years ago, she had no special training in English as a New Language, and a classroom full of other students with learning needs. But she also had a determination to deploy the best teaching strategies she could find to help all of her students succeed. And, as Jennifer says, she still maintains a practice of “being as present as she can with each student.”
Indeed, when asked about it, Jill denies that she did anything different for Jennifer than she has done for any other student. But her eyes fill with tears and she beams with pride when she explains, “now she’s going to be a nurse.”
Teaching involves thousands of interactions with each student; it is hard work, and the results are often impossible to gauge in the moment. But as Jill notes, it is also a profession where “one small thing you do can have an impact, and can last forever.” And for proof, she has a poem in impeccable English that hangs on her wall, and periodic visits from a young woman who, having felt cared for, is now making it her work to care for others.
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Now, years after Jennifer Adjivon left third grade, she’s given her teacher what Jill Murray gave her: a feeling of being valued that neither will ever forget.