Meliza Arellano (right) is now an 11th grader at Democracy Prep in New York City. Her seventh-grade teacher, Sarah Benko, inspired her to want to become a teacher.
Meliza Arellano (right) is now an 11th grader at Democracy Prep in New York City. Her seventh-grade teacher, Sarah Benko, inspired her to want to become a teacher. StoryCorps
When Meliza Arellano started seventh grade at New York City charter school Democracy Prep four years ago, she was below grade level in both math and reading. She was put in a class that helps students like her get up to speed. Her teacher was Sarah Benko. That was the year Arellano became a serious student.
"I kinda didn't like you at first," Arellano tells Benko. She says Benko would take her outside to tutor her, and that made her mad.
At her old school, Arellano rarely attended class, and she says the teachers never encouraged her to put in the extra work to succeed.
The National Teachers Initiative is a project of StoryCorps, the American oral history project. Each month this school year, Weekend Edition Sunday will celebrate stories of public school teachers across the country.
"So I guess I kinda rejected you because nobody ever helped me before. It felt really weird," she says, "but there was a point where I finally got a good grade, and I realized that you were actually doing me good."
Now, Arellano is in the honors class. She says Benko is the one who helped her realize that she likes reading.
"I used to just look at the back blurb and ... basically write almost everything that is said and ... put it in my own words and turn it in," she says.
Arellano lost count of the number of books she read last year.
"It was a lot. I was actually inspired by the fact that you helped me a lot," she says, "and so ... I want to be a teacher when I grow up."
Benko's advice for her budding teacher: "Don't worry too much if the kids like you or not."
"If you trust yourself," she says, "you want the best for them. Don't worry if they see it right in that moment."
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Brian Reed.