His teachers were a light in the darkness…

Produced & edited by Brian Diggs; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs; assisted by Tessa Benavides-Copper & Taylor Harrison

Our Voices on Teaching series features diverse perspectives about the importance of the teaching profession and personal stories about teachers who helped give rise to the future.

Most people can recall a favorite teacher that made a lasting impression on them. For Dr. Adam Sáenz, two of his high school teachers changed the course of his life, even after he graduated. Not only through academics, but in how these two women showed up for him day in and day out. By recognizing his value, talent, and potential, they encouraged him to ignore his negative self-talk, and believe he could create a bright future for himself.

“They were just so innately good at it, that when they wrote those words and sort of delivered that powerful message, I had ears to hear and internalize that message. So that was it. That’s why I believe in the power of relationships and education. My life is living proof that what educators do matter.”

As Sáenz shares about what his favorite teachers wrote to him in letters that served as a light during a dark time in his young adult life, it is a reminder for all of us – you never know how much your kind words will impact someone, so speak them often.

Video transcript

Dr. Adam Sáenz speaking:

Right after I graduated high school, that was probably the most, the darkest and most difficult year of my life. I was 18. I was on my own, struggling with mental illness, depression, anxiety, untreated trauma from things that had happened to me growing up. 

I was working as a dishwasher and living alone in a shack behind a house; small little room with a shower and a toilet and not doing well, not doing well. And I remember coming home from work one morning about 3 a.m. I’d closed a restaurant and came home to my little efficiency shack room thing and I needed to write.

I needed to get my journal out because I had learned, really on my own, that between the covers of a journal was my only safe place in the world. So I’d learned to use journaling as a therapy tool, really just sort of on my own. So I reached into my journal box to pull out my journal.

I saw these two pieces of paper down at the bottom of the box. I didn’t know what it was, so I pulled it out. And there were letters that were written to me by these two teachers at Katy High School. One was Joella Exley, she was my English teacher, and one was Polly McRoberts, and she was my creative writing teacher.

It was literally the last day of high school as I was walking out of their classroom. Each one of them said, “Hey, here, read this when you get a chance.” And I was like, “Whatever.” I didn’t even… I just stuck it in my backpack and didn’t read it. Evidently it had ended up in the bottom of my journal box, and now, almost a year later, I finally pulled these letters out and read them and I’m blown away, you know?

And they were just such words of affirmation and validation. “It was great having you. You’re a wonderful student. You’re an incredible young man. We expect great things of you.” That basically what they said and those words destroyed me, you know, because I remember thinking like, no, that is entirely dissonant with who I think I am. I’m a 19 year old version of that punk that’s always been in trouble.

I’m working as a dishwasher, I’ve got mental illness, I’ve got depression, I’ve got anxiety, I’ve got no hope, I’ve got no future, I’ve got no family. Like, I know who I am. But here are these two women for whom I had tremendous respect that were disagreeing with me and because of who they were and the way they lived their life in front of us day in day out, I couldn’t just blow them off because I knew like, they’re not going to write this if they didn’t believe it, you know?

So I was stuck. You know who’s right about me? I think I know who I am. But here are these two, what I would call expert appraisers that are disagreeing with me. And um, so finally, in my own mind, just to sort of create a test, I thought, here’s the deal. I’m going to try to get into college, when I fail at that task, in my own mind, I could say to Ms. McRoberts and Ms. Exley look, man, it was really sweet of you to write that, but I had you fooled.

That’s not who I am. I was this guy. And so one day after work at the restaurant, I got out of the kitchen all greasy and sweaty, got on a bus, took the bus to UTSA, University of Texas at San Antonio. My very first experience on a college campus was a panic attack. You know, my mind started racing.

“You don’t belong here. You’re out of your league. Brown kids where you grew up didn’t go to college. You’re not going to make it. You’re not smart enough, You’re not good enough.” Well, the first class I had to take that fall was like, I don’t know, English for Dummies or English 101 or what it was.

I thought, thank God, if I have any hope of passing a college course, it’s got to be English. That was always my favorite subject in high school. And so I took the course and I passed it and I had my first bit of hard data. The question initially was, can I get into college? But the deeper question is who’s right about me, me or them?

And I had my first bit of data arguing in their favor. You know, maybe you’re not who you thought you were, and that was the beginning of the transition. It was a game changer for me. 

So the letters, yes, they were game changers, but really the letters, what made them so impactful was the platform that those women had built in my heart, the way they loved me and were interpersonally accessible and the way they just didn’t put up with nonsense like they knew how to set boundaries. They knew how to build bridges, they knew how to build fences, you know. 

And they were just so innately good at it, that when they wrote those words and sort of delivered that powerful message, I had ears to hear and internalize that message. So that was it. That’s why I believe in the power of relationships and education. My life is living proof that what educators do matter.