One Life Saved

Student turned to her teacher after witnessing mother’s murder

My father murdered my mother in front of me when I was 10 years old. I remember it like yesterday. My mother lay dying, my father demanding she get up, and I stood crying hysterically. My father told my brother to take me back down the hill to his mother, my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know it, but that would be the last time I’d see my mother alive. As I write this, I miss her and my heart greatly cries out for her.

Ten years old and left alone, that’s how I felt. My granny is my mother’s mother; she adores me and is the love of my life, the reason I am, the reason I do all that I do, and the one person who loves me despite of and not because of. Her love is the epitome of unconditional love.

My grandma is my father’s mother. She hated me, but it was the court system that decided I must live with her until I was 18. Eight years of emotional and mental torture. I felt like I had nowhere to go and wished every day that I was never born or that God would take me away. Once a lively little girl with flopping pigtails who loved her Miss Piggy doll, I now hated life.

I immersed myself in books not because I loved to read, but because it was an escape — temporary peace of mind. It was when I was an 11th-grade student at Phillips High School that I met my theater teacher, Ms. Alicia Johnson. She changed my life forever.

She was short in stature — only 4-foot-11 — but she had the presence of a 7-footer and she meant business. It is because of Ms. Johnson that I was bitten by the acting bug. When I was on stage, I didn’t have to be Jamese anymore. I could be any character who could go anyplace in the world. There were days when I didn’t even have rehearsal that I would beg Ms. Johnson to let me stay after school. One day I remember her saying, “I’ve never seen a child not want to go home as much as you.” But that’s because she didn’t know that house she called home was more like hell for me.

There was always screaming and fighting. In eight years there was never a time that I truly felt loved. I was the last to know, but the day my father finally told me my mother had passed, I walked back into my grandma’s house and all she said was, “Is you all right?” “Yes ma’am,” I replied, and that was all. No one hugged me. No one told me everything was going to be OK, because no one cared about me, and besides my granny, the only other person who did care was now dead. When she died, a part of me was lowered into that grave with her. I was never the same.

It was my theater teacher, Ms. Johnson, who saved me from that life, and at nearly 27 years old today, I still feel her by my side.

When I became a seventh- to 12th-grade theater teacher at Erwin High School, I remembered the compassion and kindness she showed me. My past is what made me determined to do for others what was done for me.

It was a poor demographic, and the kids were hurting. Every single day for two years I had to encourage someone’s child, give a hug or say I love you. When my cheerleaders needed clothing and school supplies, I provided. When a graduating senior needed money to pay for night school, I gave. When a child was being abused by her stepfather, I stepped in. I didn’t do those things for accolades or praise; I did them because I was once each of those children in one way or another.

My grandma used to tell me I wouldn’t be anything, that I would grow up to have five or six babies and live in the projects strung out on drugs. No one expected me to make it, but I did. Partly for me, partly to say I told you so, but mostly because it’s what God ordained.

When I left Birmingham, Ala., to come to Syracuse, my students were no longer students, they had become my children. The last day I saw them, we cried for what seemed like hours, but the one message I left with each of them was this, “If nobody has told you they love you today, know that Ms. McConico does, and no matter how far I am, I’m only a phone call away or an airplane away.” I meant what I said then, and I still mean it today.

At the time, Ms. Johnson wasn’t a mother, but she stepped into that role for me. It was because of her love that I knew it was my destiny to love others as I had been loved.