This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Destiny Esper says she never watched "Welcome Back, Kotter." Now, she’s living the sequel.
Four years ago, Esper was the valedictorian at Normandy High School. After graduating from Franklin College in Indiana, where she studied journalism and public relations, then going through intensive training with Teach for America, she began her classroom career this week as an English teacher at Normandy Middle School, where she once was a student.
Sitting down to talk about her first day in her new role, and the circuitous route that brought her back to Normandy, Esper was enthusiastic about coming back home and starting her new career. The itch to teach struck, she said, while she was spending her junior year abroad in Ghana, sitting on a porch at a hostel in the spring of 2011.
"It was just a random thought," she said. "But when I got home and started looking at a career, I realized that though I love public relations and journalism, I wanted to be in a career that gave something back to the community, and not only a community but my community. I would love to go back to my community and be the great teacher that I had and that I knew they would need."
Esper said she wanted until the final deadline to apply to Teach for America, but as she worked through the application process, she knew she was making the right move.
"As soon as I started typing up the essay," she said, "all these ideas started flowing out of me. That was the moment I knew I was doing the right thing, that I definitely wanted to become a teacher."
And while Normandy was her ideal choice, it wasn’t TFA's first choice to send her — that was Dallas. But when they suddenly switched her to St. Louis, she told them, "I would really like to be in the Normandy School District. I said that is where I went, and it would be a good public relations opportunity. Luckily, Normandy welcomed me back, and here I am."
At age 22, Esper pointed out that she really isn’t all that far from the ages of the sixth-graders she is teaching, and she remembers very well what that grade was like.
"When I was a student," she said, "I thought my teachers didn’t understand. I wanted to hang out, and they were giving me homework. I understand. I’m still relatively young, and we made a connection."
The students tried to guess her age — "Are you 40?" — and wanted to know how long ago she attended Normandy Middle School. She told them they could call her Miss E. — "It kind of sounds like Missy, but it's Miss E" — and even after a day that could have been daunting, she clearly was energized.
"They’re fascinating," Esper said. "I love them already."
One of the teachers who inspired her to enter the career, Darnetta Wafford, is now teaching right down the hall, and even though she told Esper that she could call her "D" if she wanted, "I still don’t feel right. She's still Mrs. Wafford to me. There is still this underlying layer of respect. You were my sixth-grade teacher. I’m still going to call you Mrs. Wafford."
The respect is mutual.
"She was smart as a whip," Wafford said, remembering the young Esper in her class. "Very intelligent and respectful."
"I remember her always trying to push me," Esper said. "At times I didn’t like it. I said I'm done, and she would say, here is something else you can do. She challenged me, and that is something I've always appreciated."
What Wafford appreciates, she says, is the new energy that rookie teachers such as Esper can bring — just the kind of enthusiasm the profession and Normandy Middle School can use.
"We need passionate, dedicated, enthusiastic teachers to work with the students we’re working with right now," she said. "This is definitely a positive move in that direction.
"Sometimes, this business of teaching concentrates too much on education degrees. She brings something totally new to the table, new creative ideas. Sometimes teachers are stuck in this box, but new teachers bring something from the outside world."
Esper agrees, and she says that different perspective is what Teach for America can help provide. She disagrees with critics who wonder whether the program is really supplying what tough schools and tough students need, instead giving them young people without any teaching experience who may be leaving the profession after just a couple of years.
"I know I want to do something in education, preferably in my own community," she said. "Only time will tell. This is just the beginning.
"St. Louis is home to me. This is where I have my best memories, and some not-so-great memories. But it's my home, especially around this area. I know which QuikTrip is the best one to go to. It's exciting to be back and to be back in such a different way. I see things here from my child life. Now I’m coming back with fresh eyes, and it’s so interesting.
And even though she wasn’t completely familiar with the 1970s-era sitcom story of Gabe Kotter and how he was welcomed back to James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, which he once attended, Esper admits that now, it's her life story.
Was it what she had expected? If someone had told her when she was a Normandy Middle School student that she’d be back as a teacher, would she have agreed?
"I would have to say no, you're crazy," she said. "I’m going to live somewhere in Africa, and that’s where I’ll be for the rest of my life.
"But I think it's taken me to a good place right now. I’m thankful."