“He pushed me. He just kept telling me, ‘You can do this. There’s no reason why I would think that you can't. You can do whatever it is you put your mind to. You just have to work for it.’”


Jocelyn Martinez, on her teacher, Miller George

As Jocelyn Martinez’s first year of high school came to an end, she experienced back-to-back tragedies that made it nearly impossible to focus on her studies. 

One of the youngest members of her extended family, a two-year-old, was killed. Then, her father fell mysteriously ill. She saw the man who had long been a provider for his household become too weak to make it to the bathroom on his own. For months on end, her father checked in and out of the hospital to get blood transfusions, unable to work as he fought for his life. 

During that ordeal, which continued as Martinez started her sophomore year in fall 2010, her parents could no longer pay their mortgage, ultimately relocating to a four-bedroom home they shared with her two uncles and their families. 

“It was a very, very hectic time,” Martinez said. “It was a lot, so I wasn’t really focused so much on school anymore.”

Except for her French instructor, Miller George, no other teacher confronted her as her academic performance deteriorated. She went from a student who earned mostly A’s and B’s to one who received C’s and D’s at Hubbard High School on Chicago’s southwest side. Today, Martinez credits George with supporting her during a critical time in her life. When she’d given up on herself and no one else seemed to care, he pushed her to excel in her studies and to travel abroad in the future.

“I was this kid full of life, then I became just gloomy and broken. I was glad that he saw the change. I thought, ‘Wow, someone cares. Someone finally sees me.’”


Jocelyn Martinez

“There were days where I would just doze off,” Martinez said. “I was in the class, like I was physically there, but I wasn’t really there.” Finally, George stopped her after class and said, “I know you’re a good student. I know you’re smart, you’re intelligent. Your grades have lowered. You’re not putting any effort into your work. Whatever it is, get it together, and, if I can help, let me know.”

George does not believe he has a unique gift that allows him to identify youth in crisis, but he does make a point to check in with three or four of his students daily. He said that often young people have been waiting for a concerned adult to intervene. 

“Then, they just kind of blurt it out,” said George, who has taught since 2008. He now teaches at Reavis High School in Burbank, Illinois. “Every situation is different. Having a sense of humor also helps a lot. It just makes them feel comfortable, and kids have this sense sometimes that somebody’s being authentic with them.”

George’s simple intervention with Martinez surprised her. At her high school, at which she said gangs and drugs had infiltrated, teachers had far more to contend with than a student quietly abandoning herself and her studies. Amid their many personal challenges, even her own parents overlooked how withdrawn she’d become, Martinez said. When George pulled her aside, she no longer felt invisible. 

“I was this kid full of life, then I became just gloomy and broken,” she said. “I was glad that he saw the change. I thought, ‘Wow, someone cares. Someone finally sees me.’”

George, 42, knows what it’s like to be a student who feels undervalued at school, even though he attended an academic institution much different from Hubbard High School. Born in Egypt, he went to an elite French Catholic school in Cairo called Collège de la Sainte Famille (School of the Holy Family) before moving to Illinois in 1994.

“They were very, very strict,” he said. “I just did not think that that’s how it should be. As a teacher, you want people to love what they’re learning and not hate it.”

Before George entered the teaching profession, he knew that it was his passion. Both of his parents, along with two uncles and aunts, were educators. They discouraged him from becoming a teacher because they didn’t think “it was worth the hassle,” he said. So, George studied international studies and political science, eventually landing positions with government entities and financial institutions. But he recognized that teaching was his calling and decided to become an educator like his family members had. His philosophy is not complicated: No matter the student, he strives to instill confidence in them.

Miller with Martinez's French class at Hubbard High School in 2012/2013

“I always say that I teach kids for life, not just for school,” George said. “So when you look at it from that perspective, then you can have a more positive outlook, versus all the negative things that you face every day.” 

After George told Martinez that she was falling short of her potential, she stopped distancing herself from her classwork and began viewing school as a respite from the troubles at home. It surprised her, however, when George recommended her for honors French at the end of her sophomore year.

“He pushed me,” she recalled. “He just kept telling me, ‘You can do this. There’s no reason why I would think that you can’t. You can do whatever it is you put your mind to. You just have to work for it.’”

Martinez noted that she was far from the only student who benefitted from having George as a teacher. He has a reputation for taking the time to listen to students’ concerns. Offering this kind of support seems to be instinct for him, as he doesn’t always recognize the impact he’s had on students’ lives, she said. He also made class fun with his sense of humor, including by wearing costumes from the Napoleanic era that enhanced his lessons.

On his recommendation, Martinez enrolled in honors French, which proved challenging because another instructor taught that course. That teacher was not as supportive or knowledgeable about the language as George was, but Martinez ignored the impulse to drop out of the class and stuck with it. By her senior year, she was taking French with George once again and became fixated on visiting Europe to see firsthand the places she learned about in class. George had organized a couple of student trips to France when Martinez was in high school, but her parents could not afford to pay for a vacation abroad. 

It would take seven years after her 2013 high school graduation before Martinez set foot in France. As her 25th birthday approached, she intended to throw a huge bash for herself, but after a discussion with George, with whom she remained in touch through Facebook, she realized that the money she planned to use on a birthday celebration would be better spent on a French getaway.

“I told everyone that the party is not happening, and I booked my flight to France,” Martinez said. “I was really nervous because I had never traveled anywhere before.”

She reviewed the work she’d completed in her French class to help her prepare for the trip and map out sights to see. George also gave her advice on which places to visit, including the island Mont-Saint-Michel and the historic port Saint-Malo. She also made her way to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Catacombs and walked the streets of Rouen and Nantes. Raised Catholic, Martinez visited famed churches, such as the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre and Sainte-Chapelle, along the way. 

When Martinez went to France, George said, “it was a big thing,” since she had not been able to in high school. Back then, he’d hoped that she would be able to tour the country at some point. “And then one day she did,” he said. “I was very happy for her. She used the projects that we did in class to create her own trip. It was really good to see.”

“If I can change just one person's perspective to make it a more positive one, then that's it for me. I did everything.”


Miller George

After mustering the courage to travel to France in 2020, Martinez returned to Europe two years later to see Italy. She would not have expanded her world in this way without the encouragement of George, a concerned teacher who gave her a helpful nudge when she was slowly losing hope. 

“A decade later I think he needs to know that he is appreciated because teachers don’t ever receive the appreciation they deserve,” she said.

Her kind words about him have brought George to tears. As a veteran educator, he’s experienced the ups and downs of teaching, particularly during the pandemic. He’s seen colleagues abruptly leave their jobs, and students lose their social skills. Some are reluctant to interact with their peers in a class where communication matters most. 

As he’s faced challenges, knowing that he has made a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable young people keeps him going. 

“If I can change just one person’s perspective to make it a more positive one, then that’s it for me,” George said. “I did everything.”

Now a mother and a nail technician, Martinez said that she often finds herself telling people about George’s role in her life trajectory.

“I bring him up a lot, how he impacted me when I was going through a lot,” she said. “He helped me back then. He continues to help me now. When I went to France, I actually thanked him because he was the one who pushed me to go.”

But George didn’t just motivate Martinez to leave the country. He stands out to her for one major reason: “He was the first to see so much potential in me.”

Photos by Ally Almore

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