First year teacher out of college
It was a scolding hot day in the small town of Laughlin. The mini Las Vegas at the very tip of the beautiful state of Nevada. I’ll never forget August 24, 1998. It was the special kind of day that you remember the rest of your life. In fact to be honest, I didn’t learn how special it was until a few years later. I was 14 years old, so of course I knew everything, and had all the answers. I had the same class as my best friend, Teresa, since elementary school. Freshman year Biology was no different. We smacked our glossed lips with our favorite cinnamon gum, walked into the science class, and found our seats next to each other. This was our routine, and no one could separate us.
We found our seats in the back of the class, and from that moment my future was never going to be lonely. A short haired, blond, young baby face woman was sitting in the teacher’s desk. She appeared to be a teacher's aid or a student teacher. Once the exciting chatter stopped, she introduced herself. Melanie Ust from North Dakota. She was fresh out of college, and chose our small town to begin her teaching career.
The next day as Teresa and I walked into the class, she advised us our seats had been moved. She moved us to the front of the class and told us to spit our cinnamon gum out. She warned us that if we ever walked into her class again with the smell of cinnamon on our breath we would be sorry. We smirked and challenged her for the next four years. Even more importantly though, she challenged us.
For the next four years she coached our volleyball, basketball and softball teams. Teresa and I spent many days suffering from karma pranks Mama Ust, as we began to call her, would serve on a silver platter to us. One day she convinced Teresa and me that a bucket of sand had worms in it. She made us sit next to it for talking so much the day before. If our test scores were low, she would recognize our struggles and she used her own time to tutor us. It wasn’t just my best friend and I. It was anyone who walked into her class. If she felt you needed love, a challenge, to be encouraged she was always in our corner ensuring we could not fail.
After four years of rocking out to Kryptonite on the bus during sports rides, her taking me to Flagstaff, AZ for a National Guard event on her own dime, and crying at my graduation. She never left my side. I don’t need to go into childhood details, because I learned as a single mother my mother did the best she could. Mama Ust filled the void a lost lonely teenage girl needed. I needed structure and foundation and she was all of it.
When I got pregnant with my oldest daughter and was left alone with her, Mama Ust attended the baby shower. Later in the life when that same daughters was in 5th grade and begged to go to Washington, D.C. with her class, Mama Ust loaned me the money to send her. I paid every dime back.
I grocery shopped in her freezer as a single mother, and countless times surprises with no from name would show on my door step. I know it was Mama Ust.
After a rough divorce I got pregnant out wedlock. In 2016 I gave birth to a 5 week premature baby girl, Jessi. Who was there in the recovery room? Mama Ust. She has never left my side. Ever.
Now here we are, 20 years later. I have a sophomore. That same sophomore I gave birth to in 2003. The same little girl Mama Ust sent to Washington, D.C. Mama Ust is now guiding my oldest through responsible class decisions that will make her college life easier. She is still leaving surprises at my door. Diapers, clothes for the kids and I forgot to mention the best material gift of them all. Dakota sunflower seeds sent directly from North Dakota. It is a tradition she has done since softball season 1999. Once every couple months I go to her house for a traditional dish she has made me since Freshman year. Deep dish pizza with a crescent crust. You can thank me later if you make it.
Mama Ust never had her own children. Selfishly, I would like to think God placed her in the small town of Laughlin away from her family, FOR ME. I call her mom and in my heart she is the compassion I never received. She is the woman figure I needed.
Winning this award wouldn’t identify her or change who she is. It would be an amazing way to say thank you for keeping your word to hundreds of lost young spirits who just needed someone to care.
Jessica Carol Hammond