By the time Melanie Clason turned 18, the worst day of her life and the best day of her life had both happened at the end of a country driveway. As Mustang Creek Elementary’s Teacher of the Year, Clason’s story is one of sheer determination and love.
On the first day of school of her ninth grade year, Melanie Clason stood by the mailbox at the end of the driveway waiting for the bus. She was the fifth child of 12, the second oldest girl. Her parents were old-fashioned and strict, bringing up their children in a life dominated with love and work ethic, with no television, no bank accounts, and no time for anything outside of their busy farm life. Clason didn’t mind; she had a huge family with 35 first cousins, she was loved and she had school. With 11 siblings, she and her brothers sisters played school to pass the time when they weren’t doing chores.
As Clason waited, her father joined her at the end of the drive. Her mother needed her help, he said, and she was good at English and had enough math. She didn’t need any more schooling. She would stay home and help with the children, the chores and the farm.
“I said, ‘No, Daddy. No, Daddy. I love school. I’ve got to go to school. I want to go to school.”
Her father wouldn’t budge, but eventually allowed Clason to enroll in a homeschool curriculum out of Chicago. She paid for it herself with money made helping her brother mow lawns.
“My brother and I would go by the Circle K and I would get a money order and mail it to the American School,” she said. “They would send me three subjects at a time. If I didn’t understand, there was a number I could call during certain hours and ask to speak to someone for guidance.”
When she wasn’t mowing lawns, she was handling chores on the farm or helping her mother with the children. At night, Clason worked through the American School curriculum.
Around the same time her classmates were graduating from Western Heights, Clason pulled her diploma from the mailbox.
“It was little and in a case, but it was mine,” she said.
Clason wanted nothing more than to keep going to school.
“I still wanted more education,” she said. “I craved it. I knew there was so much more out there. I went for one semester, but it was so expensive, I couldn’t do it. I worked all the time to save and save and save.”
She married James Clason when she was 22. After five years, they had their first of two children. With the help of her family, she and James built a house in a Mustang neighborhood, doing the work themselves. It took them a year and a half to finish. She made money cleaning houses and baking cakes until she took a job as a teacher’s assistant at Mustang Creek after both kids were in school. Her friends at the school encouraged her to go to back to college and get a teaching certificate.
At 37, she enrolled at Oklahoma City Community College with her sights set on a degree in education. She was enrolled in TriO, a student special service program for nontraditional, first generation students.
“I didn’t know how to study,” she said. “I didn’t know how to take notes.”
She had taken no traditional tests like the ACT or the SAT. Placement tests showed her English was on par, but her math was not. Instead of taking multiple placement tests for math, she asked the academic counselor to start her in the lowest math class they had.
“I needed to know where it starts,” she said. “If I’m going to teach a child to do math, I want to know the very basics, the fundamentals of math. I had eight math classes before I graduated.”
She graduated from OCCC with a pre-education associate’s degree and was named Student of the Year. She went from OCCC to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.
After 12 years in their home, her student loans came due. James told Clason whatever it took, she would stay in school.
“It was either sell the house or pay on my student loans. He said, ‘We’re moving. We’re downsizing.’ So we sold the house and downsized to keep going,” she said. “The kids were little. It was so hard sometimes.’”
Clason has been teaching at Mustang Creek Elementary for six years. She has found a home with kindergarten.
“I feel like I have what it takes to create that love of learning when they’re first exposed to school,” she said. “When they’re first exposed, I want them say, ‘Oh my goodness, I love school. I want to go to school for the rest of my life.’”
When one little boy struggled with the transition from half-day pre-kindergarten to a full-day kindergartener, Clason started eating lunch with him every day.
“I said, ‘You’re not leaving. I’m going to be sad if you’re leaving me. I want you to be at school to learn with me,’” she told him. “You have to meet them on their level and meet their needs.”
His attitude has changed and he hasn’t missed school since.
“I love kindergarten and I think I have what it takes,” she said. “I love to see their growth with writing skills. They each have a writing workshop binder and we add to it as the year progresses. I love to watch them as they look at their own handwriting from the beginning of the school year and then compare it to their current handwriting. I’ve had some who share it with their friends, saying “Look how I used to write when I just started!”
Looking back on her time in school, Clason remembers all the teachers who knew she and her siblings were being raised in a home that valued an old-fashioned culture.
“Even though my siblings and I were ‘different,’ and raised in a non-traditional home, our teachers never treated us differently,” she said. “They always made sure that we fit in and we felt loved.”
Clason wants to do the same thing for her students.
“I just wrap them up and tell them, ‘You’re going to be great,’” she said. “‘You’re going to have so much fun.’”
Clason’s story is one of sheer determination that never sacrificed the love. Her father may have not seen the value of the education she so desperately wanted but they remain close.
“I love to learn. I learn something every day,” she said. “I learn from these kids.
Clason is one of 14 site Teachers of the Year for Mustang Public Schools.
“I am truly honored to represent as Creek’s Teacher of the Year,” she said. “I always wanted to be an advocate for education.”