Wanda Smith's dream had always been to be a teacher, but she had to put that on hold after graduating high school to take care of her mother and provide for her family.
Smith worked long hours as a bus monitor and custodian for the Brenham Independent School District in Texas, but she never let go of the hope that one day she would be leading a classroom.
It took nine years of perseverance through attending night classes, missing time with her three children and nearly quitting school multiple times amid the tragic loss of her mother and sisters, but she earned a bachelor's degree from Sam Houston State University in 2010 that made her a certified teacher.
Smith then returned to Brenham Elementary School as a first-grade teacher at the school where she had once worked as the custodian.
"When I stand in front of my classroom, I am living my dream," she told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Tuesday.
Jenna highlighted Smith's inspiring journey as part of Teacher Appreciation Week before giving her a series of surprises that left her in tears on Tuesday.
"Wanda Smith is the portrait of an American teacher," Brenham Elementary School principal Kim Rocka said on TODAY. "She’s such an inspiration to us all."
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Dr. Alisa White, the president of Sam Houston State, surprised Smith with a $500 scholarship in her name. The Wanda Smith Make a Difference Scholarship will go to a first-generation Sam Houston State student who wants to pursue a career in teaching.
That honor was followed by Brenham mayor Milton Tate Jr. declaring Tuesday "Be the Best You Can Be" Wanda Smith Day in honor of one of Smith's favorite phrases.
"Wanda, you're not just an inspiration to your students, but also to our community," Tate Jr. said.
"Oh my God, I got a day," Smith said as she dabbed tears.
Rocka then capped off the surprises by presenting a bench outside the elementary school with Smith's name on it and the words "Be the best that you can be" inscribed on it. Her husband, Darron, and two of her children were there to give her an emotional hug while her elementary school students gave her a cheer.
"I never thought the day would happen," Darron Smith said. "It's awesome."
It was a proud day for a teacher who did not enroll in college until she was 37 after working to support her family. She used to start work at 6 a.m. as a bus monitor and then worked from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. as a custodian.
"And sometimes I didn't get to sleep because if mom needed to go to the doctor, I'd just get off and do what I had to do," she told Jenna. "And I never really thought about it. I just did it because it had to be done."
With the encouragement of her husband, she returned to school to get an associate's degree at Blinn College, a junior college in Brenham, in 2004. She then enrolled at Sam Houston State a year later.
"I was totally nervous because all of the children in there, they were children, and sometimes I was older than the professor," Smith said.
During her journey to a bachelor's degree, she endured the deaths of her mother and two sisters, which caused her to nearly quit school multiple times.
"I was so happy to tell them that I was going back to school," she said while crying. "They were so proud of me. My sister would be the one I would talk to at night when I was coming home. Then when I lost her, that took a lot out of me. It took a lot out. And yes, I did want to stop.
"But then my husband, he sat me down, and he let me know that I wasn't the only one that made sacrifices. And so I was like, 'OK, I can do this. I can keep going.'"
Thirty years after she graduated high school, she walked the stage at Sam Houston State's graduation in 2010 with her diploma to the cheers of her husband and children.
"I mean, somebody growing up in the projects that people counted out, I got a diploma," she said. "Not only did I get a diploma, I got a bachelor's degree."
The strength Smith displayed to get her college degree has been on display again during this past year when her students relied on her during a pandemic that has challenged teachers across the country.
She personally delivered packets to students' homes because many of them have single parents who were at work and did not have time to pick them up from school. She wanted her students to stay on track with their learning.
The will to keep going and the love of education is what Smith now tries to pass on from her own life to her young students.
"I want them to know that school, these are gonna be the best years of your life," she said. "And I want them to love school enough that they want to come and see me every day. And if they love me like that, they're gonna come and see me every day."