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Victoria Odom overcame significant odds to graduate at Southeastern this spring. Following extensive surgery to remove a brain tumor, the teacher-to-be had to re-learn basic life skills, undergoing intensive physical and speech therapy.
Ask Victoria Odom why she likes teaching high school English, she is quick to answer it's the unexpected surprises that each day brings.
"Right when you feel like you want to rip your hair out, something happens and the student who has been sleeping through your class suddenly turns in his best work on an assignment," said Odom, who overcame tremendous odds and graduated just this month from Southeastern Louisiana University. "That's all it takes. That can keep a teacher going for a month."
Odom knows a great deal about keeping herself going using her unique combination of determination, optimism, patience and humor. Those qualities were honed and tested when she was just 16 and underwent a complicated, nine-hour brain surgery to remove a golf-ball sized tumor from between the lobes of her cerebellum. Although the surgery was successful, Odom was in a coma for 16 days. When she awoke, she was paralyzed and using a feeding tube.
Over the next two years, she worked hard every day to re-learn basic life skills, undergoing intensive physical and speech therapy. She re-learned to walk, talk, feed and bathe herself, fully learning to walk again just eight months before coming to Southeastern. Determined to graduate with her classmates at Dutchtown High School in Geismar in 2009, she studied with a homebound teacher until she could return to school.
"She is a big part of why I became a teacher," Odom said of her homebound teacher, Jill Gautreau, now a special education teacher at East Ascension High School, where Odom did her student teaching. "She never let me make excuses, never looked at me differently because of my illness, and never doubted that I would graduate with my class."
Donna LaCaze, assistant professor in the Southeastern Department of Teaching and Learning, who taught Odom in her classroom management course, said Odom has all the right qualities to be a teacher.
"She's an impressive person," said LaCaze. "She is an extremely hard worker and very determined. She never let her health issues get in her way and never used them as an excuse. She had the highest average in the class, had every assignment done on time and was always positive and encouraging to others. She was like the class president, really.
"When I observed her in the classroom, I saw nothing but total respect, from the students as well as the teachers who were there, LaCaze added. "She gives respect so she receives respect in return."
Up-front and open, Odom speaks matter-of-factly of her experiences. She realizes people notice that her speech is slow or that her balance is slightly off, and she wants them to know why. She addressed her illness during student teaching, telling her story to her classes on the first day.
"The students were completely focused," she said. "You could have heard a pin drop."
Now that she has graduated, Odom's priorities are to find a permanent teaching position and work toward her add-on certification in special education. Due to learning difficulties caused by the surgery, coma and strokes, Odom is classified "504," the same as many special education students. This refers to the rights of students with hidden disabilities under Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
"Recently, I realized that me being classified as 504 could actually be an asset in working with students with disabilities," Odom said. "I've never heard of that before, of a teacher classified 504 who works with students classified 504. I want to break that barrier."
Given Odom's track record, that barrier is likely to be broken soon.