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One Teacher’s Fortitude—and Her Grandfather

This year has demanded even more of educators that what they normally and selflessly give. Today, as 190 Partnership-New York teachers and staff gathered to reflect on the year and on what is to come, Leslie Hernandez, who teaches fourth grade, shared one of this year’s biggest surprises for her.

Leslie started her first year of teaching in 2019-20 with a firm sense of her why. Having fought hard to finish grad school and become a teacher, she moved back to her hometown of New York with two missions: to help kids and to support her grandparents, who had come to the city from the Dominican Republic years ago. Little did Leslie know how much both her callings would demand of her—or what she would find in the process.

She recounted for us how, as the pandemic bore down hard on her family’s Bronx neighborhood in April, her grandfather began to experience sudden and significant signs of illness. Discouraged from taking him to the local emergency room as it was inundated with COVID patients, Leslie moved in with her grandparents in just hours and began juggling caring for her grandfather with teaching remotely—from an apartment with no internet connection.

Leslie Hernandez as a child, with her grandfather.

Her grandfather’s death after hard days of caring for him presented new challenges for Leslie, who had just turned 25. Informed by the EMS and police that her grandfather would need to be buried in New York’s mass burial site if the family did not find a funeral home that would take him the same day, Leslie jumped on the phone, begging and pleading with overworked funeral homes until one agreed to take him.

In the summer that followed, Leslie was even more drained than most educators, and she did what so many of us have this year: she considered quitting. She didn’t know how she was going to teach fourth grade when she felt like she had nothing left to give.

Nevertheless, she returned to her classroom at St. Mark the Evangelist in September. And as the year went on, she discovered something that many teachers can relate to:

I realized that the “how” wasn’t my problem to figure out. 

If I’m being honest, you can’t really manufacture fortitude. You can exercise it with practice, but I learned I already had it. 

I thought I didn’t have a grain of strength in me and assumed I would succumb to my fears and my trauma. It didn’t swallow me whole. Fortitude, strength, grace, and patience came up and through me, and I was almost shocked they did. 

If I could have gone through helping my grandfather transition, why wouldn’t I get through in-person teaching in a pandemic with a mask on eight hours a day? 

I didn’t know how I was going to help my grandparents when I finished my masters, but I knew I would, and I let God show me how. I didn’t know how I was going to get through this year of teaching but I showed up everyday, gave it my all, and He showed me how. 

She spoke for all of us when she added,

We probably all questioned the “how” many times. 

Step back once in a while and look at how God, or whatever you consider divine, filled in the blank for you. How fortitude showed up without you asking and without you manufacturing it. 

Octavia Butler says “All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” 

Rely on the belief that no matter what sudden change happens to you, you never have to inauthentically manufacture your strength through adversity. Stay receptive to change, and let God show you how you’ll get through it. 

Today, we marvel and give thanks for the gift of fortitude God has given to us this year—and to educators like Leslie, whose active cooperation with how God works through them is redeeming the world, one classroom and school at a time.

Her grandfather had chickens growing up. As a dementia patient, he responded particularly to pictures of them; Leslie, who does not paint regularly, made this one for him the week he died. In some Christian circles, the rooster is a symbol of resurrection.