The Teacher That May Have Changed My Life


Madison Tovey, Writer, Editor-in-Chief

I was never bright.

Well, at least the kind that’s notable. I have never been the smartest, I have never been the first at anything, and I have certainly never been the first in my class. I did get a mathematician award in 1st grade, so, you know, have something going for me. I got those “pleasure to have in class” cards too. What I did not ever get was a spot on the honor roll. Though I hold myself to a greater standard now, when I was in elementary school and most of middle school, if I got a 75 or above, I would say that called for celebration. But all of that changed in eighth grade in large part due to my teacher, Mrs. Kokal.

Let me back up to elementary school real quick. Although I tried, I didn’t do super well. I was that kind of smart to where you want to do better, and you vaguely understand the concept but never succeed. It’s hard to be good at school when you’re young. I mean, when I study now for, say, AP World History, I could open the courses textbook. But when your biggest obstacle is counting by 4s, you can’t really read how to understand: 4, 8, 12, 16.

So that meant when I got to middle school, and my brain had skimmed a lot of material, I had a lot to catch up on. I was initially homeschooled for 6th grade, but due to family circumstances, I had to go to the public school down the street from my house, Cass Middle School. For my Cartersville people reading this…I cannot justify myself, blame whoever oversees zoning. City council or something like that.

Then, plot twist, because of my own health issues, I had to do a hybrid schedule for the rest of my 6th-grade year. Yeah, that’s right, I did it before it was cool. But I barely passed. And when I was going into 7th grade, I had a talk with myself, “Madison, we have to do it. We have to go. We have to do well.” And then I didn’t. And then I did. Then the first semester was, umm, a dumpster-fire-trainwreck. But I did well in my second semester and ended up with some high B’s and some A’s.

Next fall, I go through the same talk. I did have a leg up this time because I was doing a little better. But still, in my mind, we went through the speech again, “We have to do it. We have to go. We have to do well.” Yet another plot twist, 8th grade was not that good either. I did well grade-wise. My attendance was questionable at best. And then COVID happened, so who knows what could have happened in the last 2 months of school?

A core memory I gained that year still rings in my ears. I missed a couple of days, and when I got back, we had started a new unit in one of my classes. At this point, I don’t even remember what the content was. But we did a practice quiz that was 3 questions. I missed 2.

“Madison,” my teacher said.

“Yes, ma’am?” I responded

She paused for a second, looking at her computer screen, “I’m embarrassed for you.” Whether she was joking and had a scary good poker face or just enjoyed children’s tears is still a mystery. That is not important to this story… But that was messed up, right?

After a few months, we had a meeting about magnet programs starting up at Bartow County Schools. Cass High School was international studies, Adairsville was science, tech, and math, Woodland High School was medical sciences. I sat through the presentation excited and hopeful. I wanted to go to Woodland for medical sciences. I wasn’t super passionate about the medical field, but I loved science.

Then they started talking about the application process.

I didn’t think it would be too difficult. This year’s grades, teacher recommendation. But then they said to make it fair, “We will be looking at each year to get an idea of students’ overall performance,” My good grades from 8th grade weren’t going to combat 2 years of mediocrity and failing milestone scores. Or at least that’s all I could think.

I still remember walking back to my class thinking, “There is no way I would be accepted.”

Finally, enter Mrs. Kokal. She was my Physical Science teacher. Even when I had about 50-60 absences a year, science was always my favorite subject and was usually taught by my favorite teacher.

I walked by Mrs. Kokal’s room, and she said, “Madison if you don’t apply, I will hurt you and apply for you.” I laughed, but I think about that all the time. Even more than how disappointing my middle school years were or being told, “I’m embarrassed for you.”

I wasn’t very hopeful at that time. I don’t know if you’ve caught the vibe or not, but I’m not a lucky person. I don’t believe in luck, and she doesn’t particularly believe in me. But after my friends and all my other teachers said, “They’d be crazy not to accept you.” I started to get hopeful.

I applied.

I woke up a couple of months later to an email titled “application status” I’ll save you the suspense; I didn’t get in.

I went to my ELA teachers’ room for office hours that morning to avoid sitting in the noisy gym. I had to go in and hear all my friends had gotten into all three programs. Ones that were exceptional students, ones who got solid B’s every year, and ones who even looked to me as the “smart friend,” And then after a couple minutes, the inevitable question, “Did you get in?”

My stomach dropped from the sheer weight of embarrassment and disappointment. I said, “Umm, no.” They looked surprised. Which is at least better than, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

Mrs. Kokal turned to me and said, “Are you kidding?”

I pulled out my phone to show them the email, “Unfortunately, no.” She pulled up my performance records with my grades and test scores. She looked and said that considering everything, my grades weren’t even that bad.

“I personally remember writing your recommendation letter,” she said. I felt so embarrassed that I was the only one I knew who applied and didn’t get in. “I can try and get you into the program at Cass. Do you want me to see what I can do?” As kind as the offer was, I had no desire to learn Arabic or Mandarin.

“No, it’s okay,” I said.

I never had a teacher who cared. I’ve had ones who have been nice. I’ve had ones that seem to care decently about their students, also had quite a few that seemed like the bane of their existence was children. But I never had a teacher fight for me for anything. I didn’t think that I did anything impressive, let alone had the capability of doing so. I was never recommended honors classes. I can almost guarantee the thought did not even pop into any past teacher of mine’s head.

But then, when registration came around, I was recommended for all honors. I was excited that people thought I was smart enough to succeed in honors classes. Of course, now I realize that pretty much everyone has at least one honors class, but at the time, it meant a lot.

I understand that it is cheesy to say that “without failing, you don’t learn anything” because it does sound stupid. I didn’t necessarily learn any colossal life lessons. I learned that rejection sucks. And somehow, through all that, one teacher just taking the time to say, “Hey, you matter.” mattered.

I think about where I would be if none of that happened. If Mrs. Kokal didn’t tell me to apply, if I wasn’t rejected, if I didn’t learn that someone believed in me, that wasn’t legally obligated. I would have done what I did every year. My attendance would have slipped even more than it did previously in the year, then my grades would have followed. I wouldn’t have done well enough for honors classes. When I did get to high school, I would be left to try and piece together the things I missed from the year prior. So on, and so forth until I either barely graduated or dropped out.

The irony is that I have learned that most teachers only believe in you if you believe in yourself. Luckily, Mrs. Kokal gave me that.