There is an unknown generation of young women who walk around without seeing or feeling a glass ceiling. They see the world filled with endless opportunities to do and be more. They want to give, love and work harder than most because that's what they were taught and inspired to do. I am a part of this generation. I, like so many of these girls, yearn to make a difference; every fiber of my being aches to be a part of positive change. This is nothing new. Since the tender age of six or seven, I have been quietly carrying an unquenchable feeling that I was put on this earth to make an impact on a large scale. At the time, most likely due to the lack of life experiences and knowledge, I had no idea why I thought I, a little girl from a small Midwestern town, could leave a mark, yet I believed I would do that very thing. It would take quite some time before I realized the root of this overwhelming sense of empathy and passion to be a person of service.
The cause? I am a part of Generation O. Born in 1987, I literally grew up with Oprah on my television screen. In my toddler years, I watched because it's what was on, but I quickly became hooked to the sense of empowerment and joy I would feel. Half the time I had no idea what was going on because it was about marriage, money, or "designing a better you," but I knew I loved how Oprah made me and the people on her show feel. Faithfully, I've been tuning in from adolescence to adulthood and because of this was unknowingly equipped with all I needed to travel through life as a strong young woman. Oprah was like a fairy godmother who swooped in and gave me my slipper so that I could one day make it to the ball. After 28 years with Oprah as a guiding light in my life, here is what I know for sure...
1) Becoming a teacher is one of the greatest choices I could make.
I was eight and dealing with a predicament, one unusual for someone who couldn't pass the height requirement for most rides at an amusement park. I couldn't decide if I should become the first female president or a teacher. It sounds funny, but I wasn't about to waste my formative years on Barbies and play time; I had a world to change. My parents told me I could be anything I wanted and urged me to use my intelligence to its fullest potential. It was around this mid-childhood crisis that I was blessed with the rerun of Oprah's favorite teacher Mrs. Duncan appearing on the show. Besides Mary Tyler Moore, I had never witnessed Oprah so overcome with emotion. Watching tears run down her face, I knew that a desk in the Oval Office wasn't for me. I wanted to be Mrs. Duncan. I wanted to be there to inspire, challenge, and help kids. The love Oprah had for her adored teacher was palpable, and at that moment, my inner turmoil subsided. If Oprah, who has sat with presidents, Oscar winners, national heroes, and rock stars fawned over a teacher, then it was clear what my path should be; I would become a high school English teacher.
Choosing to become a teacher hasn't always been easy. Whether being told I've wasted my intelligence and talents or reading in the media that I, along with my colleagues, am not doing my job, I can honestly say I haven't always felt as though I am in the right line of work. It's in those moments though I am reminded of Mrs. Duncan; I am reminded of Oprah in tears. I look out over my classroom full of empty desks and think of the sweet, and sometimes ornery, students who are counting on me to do more than just teach them sentence structure and whether or not to use the Oxford comma. I am a cheerleader, coach, friend, counselor, parent, and so much more. A life of fame and fortune isn't what I want. I want a life filled with joy, inspiration, and service. Being a teacher provides me with that, and I have Oprah and Mrs. Duncan to thank.
2) Character is more important than reputation.
What I know for sure is when I am stripped down to the core, it will not matter the amount of money in my bank account, what brand of clothes I wear, or any title I may possess. What matters is if I have character and integrity. I saw this play out continually on my TV screen. Etched in my mind are Clemantine and Claire Wamariya, the sisters who fled the genocide in Rwanda and were reunited with their family after being apart for 12 years. The strength and heart those two young women displayed was enough to send me into the ugly cry. I adore Mattie Stepanek, the young poet who dreamt of having his words weave a message of peace and love. Fighting a deadly disease, Mattie's short life inspired compassion and hope, and he was easily the most incredible spirit I've ever witnessed on television. There was Erin Kramp, the mother who knew she was dying of cancer so she recorded advice about all stages in life for her daughter. These people are who matter. These are the ones who deserve to be on the covers of magazines and talked about in schools. Oprah taught me the type of person I am holds more precedence than the accolades that come with my name.
3) I can make a difference.
I will forever spend my life grateful to Oprah for engraining in me that little Erin Parker from La Porte, Indiana, can in fact leave a mark on this great big world. Oprah is proof of that. She was not born with a silver spoon in her hand or even with the odds in her favor. She proved to me every day the power of a soul on fire with a passion for good. She moved me to pursue a way to contribute no matter where I am or how small it may be. Because of Oprah, I discovered my vehicles for change are through my writing and ability to inspire kindness in others. My students created the Kindness Campaign, a group whose sole purpose is to do random acts of kindness and create a culture of giving in our school. Watching teenagers actively search out ways to help others is easily one of the most enriching and fulfilling aspects of my job. I also have a column called "Spark for Change" for a local news agency. I was given a platform to put words to these farfetched and passionate beliefs and dreams I have in hopes of prompting others to join the crusade. I know these are just the beginning steps to something greater, and I am committed to doing so much more. Oprah taught me not to be afraid of my potential but to embrace it and use it as a spark to start a blaze of change.
Oprah ignited in me an inextinguishable flame to leave a positive mark. She defied all the odds and has cemented her fingerprint on this world. Why can't I? Because of Oprah, a generation of girls, not just me, carries that question around like a torch guiding them into places their mothers and grandmothers never dared to enter. My voice has the power to make a change, and no one gets to define my life and potential except for me. The greatest part of it all is that I am blessed to be able to give to my students exactly what Oprah gave to me: hope. I am possibly the only voice in their lives who tells them they are important and more than capable of reaching any and all goals they set for themselves. It's gratifying to see the twinge of excitement in the eyes of my students when they believe in themselves; I am sure it's equivalent to the one I had all those times I sat in front of my TV listening to Oprah tell me the same thing. Her legacy didn't stop with me. It lives on now through my students who carry the same "Why can't I?" motto Oprah passed on to me and countless others. I am grateful to be a part of Generation O because we were taught a passion, resiliency, and love for others that is the key to changing the world.