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Columbus teacher says a ‘handshake or a high-five’ can change a student’s life

It has been well documented by psychologists that, holistically, we Americans tend to be touch-phobic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I guess. It’s just a thing. Regarding the importance of touch in our very youngest, however, a lack of powerful, positive touch can, indeed, turn out to have quite the negative impact on our children.

Take holding hands, for example. Think about all the times we have grabbed hold of someone’s hand, especially when we were younger. When we crossed the street, mom grabbed our hand to ensure our safety. When we were sick, she grabbed our hand to comfort us. When we fell on the playground, she held our hand to ease the pain. When we were scared of the dark, she held our hand to calm our fears. The peace mom’s hand provided us became the basis for our emotional well being.

Through the simple act of mom holding our hand, we learned to develop trust. We learned that fear and pain are temporary. We learned the importance of reaching out for help, and we learned the impact of doing the same for others. Psychologists even say that we need eight to 10 meaningful, positive touches a day to be balanced and healthy. For most of us, mom was the first of many who played a part in developing our physical and emotional health.

But what about the many kids in our public schools who don’t get their dose of loving touches at home?

Thousands of our city’s children go to sleep every night not receiving a single positive touch. No pat on the back. No high five. No hand held. No hugs.

This is precisely why teachers like Tomeka Trussell at Dorothy Height Elementary School come to work every morning. She comes to fill voids. She knows and understands the power of a simple high-five, an encouraging pat on the back, or a calming hand-hold — because she’s been there. She has been in the empty space of many of her students.

Growing up in Wilson Apartments and attending Fox Elementary School, young Tomeka was looking for positivite experiences. She hungered for it, desperately needed it and finally found it within the peaceful, loving hands of her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Vignery. Learning colors and shapes paled in comparison to Tomeka learning how to be loved and cared for unconditionally and wholeheartedly.

To make such a lasting impression, one would think Mrs. Vignery must have been profound in her lessons or quite pronounced in how she cared for her students. But, no, not really. She simply held Tomeka’s hand. That’s all. Every so often when they walked to the cafeteria or to P.E. class, Mrs. Vigney just grabbed Tomeka’s hand, and that made all the difference for little Tomeka Trussell.

Simple. Nothing elaborate or over the top. Just a gesture that a young kindergartner desperately needed.

Mrs. Vignery’s simple, positive touch set the stage for Mrs. Trussell to become a teacher herself. She laid the foundation for this little girl, and other teachers along the way helped build her destiny, brick by brick, kindness by kindness — teachers like Louise Tolbert, who taught the sixth grade Tomeka, and Mrs. Jacobs, who taught the high schooler. Small acts of kindness that altered the predestined future of a student who should have been a statistic. And yet, here she is — on the third grade hall of Dorothy Height Elementary School.

Many years later, Mrs. Trussell still speaks of how much difference a teacher’s kind gesture made in her life. Even though she was only 5 years old, she fondly recalls the power of hope instilled in her when a caring teacher simply held her hand. And as she got older, teachers continuously stepped up to fill the void with a pat on the back or a hand on the shoulder.

Now, as you can expect, Mrs. Trussell does the very same thing for her third-grade students at Dorothy Height. She’s probably on a mission, if you ask me. I bet she tries to love on every one of her students at least eight times a day, and I bet they are soaking it in.

That’s the cycle of the teaching profession. We grab hold of what impacted us, what changed and morphed us into loving, caring human beings, and we recycle it. We use it. We spread it. And this is what sustains teachers — the fact that we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that amid all the ickiness of the world, we can still offer hope to our students.

So can you, if you try. All it takes is a handshake or a high-five or a pat on the back – eight times.

Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at