Higher Education Educator of the Year Norma Salazar

Vol. 2, Iss. 8 | April 2021

WHEN I HEARD our keynote speaker at the RGV LEAD Conference, Mr. David Leal, talk about his former teacher, Mr. Reyna, from Brown Middle School in McAllen, it took me back to a story I recount every Christmas about Mr. Reyna, who also happened to be my 5th-grade teacher at Zavala Elementary School. I was touched by Mr. Leal’s story and felt compelled to share mine when I learned of my nomination for this award.

Our stories exemplify the power of kindness and compassion, especially from educators – the people we admire and see as our mentors. The story of how Mr. Reyna impacted my life begins like this:

It was the Christmas season in 1976. And although our humble home didn’t have all the trappings of Christmas, our family was always happy with what we had. Nevertheless, I told my mother that I would ask Mr. Reyna if I could have that gorgeous miniature Christmas tree he had in the classroom. I waited until I knew everyone had left for Christmas vacation and walked back to school. I found Mr. Reyna and asked him if I could have that little tree. However, he had already gifted the tree to the custodian. I thanked him anyway and sadly walked back home to break the news to my mom. But less than an hour later, there was a knock on my door. It was Mr. Reyna. He had bought me a brand new miniature Christmas tree! My family and I were so happy and so thankful! We used that tree for many years until it fell apart. But I never forgot Mr. Reyna’s kind gesture – one of many that year. I remember he would make paper money we could “earn” and use it to purchase school supplies. For those of us who didn’t have much, this was invaluable! It helped us feel so happy – there were no poor kids. We were all the same.

Fast-forward 30 years later, in 2006. I decided to look for Mr. Reyna and found that he was now at Brown Middle School. I contacted him and told him I would be visiting him at school. I wanted him to know how much he had impacted my life and thank him again. So the day came, and I arrived with a miniature Christmas tree and a snow globe as gifts for Mr. Reyna. Everything had come full circle. I was able to reciprocate the kindness he showed me and my family. And the best thing was that my children finally met the man in my Christmas story, so the moment was surreal.

You never know the impact you can have as an educator on a child’s and their family’s lives. For the last 20 years, I have dedicated my life to helping at-risk populations at the secondary and post-secondary level, including migrant students, GED students, and students from all backgrounds – helping them pursue an education, overcome barriers, obtain food, Christmas gifts, books, supplies, and meet other needs. I have worked with students who faced incredible odds and were on the verge of giving up on their education. But with God’s guidance, I was able to help them find their courage and reach the potential they never knew they had. Many are now established professionals in a myriad of fields.

The African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child ” couldn’t be more accurate – nobody truly succeeds without others impacting their lives somehow. It was my family, teachers, counselors, colleagues, and so many others. It has been an honor to continue Mr. Reyna’s legacy of giving to others with the same love and compassion he showed me – the same lessons taught to me by my parents, who were always very supportive of my endeavors. They knew education would be the only way to ensure I wouldn’t have to labor in the fields and that my vote would speak louder than what my voice could carry.

And so I would like to thank all who have impacted my life. I want to thank God for this beautiful opportunity to serve others: my beloved parents and my in-laws, all of whom are not here today but who left a lasting mark in my life through the wisdom shared and their love and support; RGV LEAD’s staff and director for this beautiful award and recognition – I am genuinely humbled; My wonderful husband and family for their unwavering love and support; and once again, I would like to thank Mr. Reyna. His story will continue for generations. Likewise, the impact of his kindness and compassion will reverberate for many years to come.

Thank you so much!

~ Norma Salazar

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