Tykesha Cross did not have an easy childhood in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Cross was 6 when her dad died, and she says her mother was an alcoholic.
“School for me was a safe haven,” Cross told TODAY correspondent Priscilla Thompson.
Cross excelled academically while being raised by her grandparents. But then her life took an unexpected turn: During Cross’s senior year, she became pregnant with her first child.
At the time, Cross says she thought her “life was in a sense, over,” and she stopped attending classes.
Then one day, there was a knock at her door. It was Cross’s guidance counselor, Yolanda Prim. Prim wasn’t about to let Cross give up so quickly.
“She came to my house and told me, ‘You know, I need you to come back to school,’” Cross recalled on TODAY. When Cross motioned to the baby in her arms, she says Prim replied, “So what? Come back to school.”
Prim took Cross under her wing and helped her to graduate. Once Cross had her high diploma, Prim announced that Cross would be going to college.
“No one in my family has ever been to college,” Cross remembered telling Prim. “I don’t have any money. That’s not something I can do.”
Prim’s response? “It’s not a choice.”
Cross went to college and earned her degree. She also married her high school sweetheart. Life was good until 2015, when Cross lost her job and her beloved grandparents. Prim saw that Cross was struggling, and offered her a job as a substitute teacher.
“I showed up scared as could be,” Cross told Thompson of her first day in the classroom.
She had nothing to worry about. Cross was a natural educator, and Prim pushed her to get certified. Wanting to make Prim proud, Cross joined the Arkansas Teacher Corps, and in May, she received her teacher certification.
“(It) was a dream come true,” an emotional Cross said. “It’s a promise kept.”
Prim wasn’t there when Cross got her certificate; she moved to Texas one year prior.
“If you could see Miss Prim today, what would you want to tell her?” Thompson asked Cross.
“She’s a rock star. I’m going to continue to push that legacy,” Cross replied.
Little did Cross know that TODAY had arranged a big surprise, and Prim was about to appear in her Arkansas classroom.
As soon as Cross spotted her mentor, she burst into tears.
“Look at you now, I’m so proud of you, Cross,” Prim declared.
“I honestly don’t believe that you know how important you are to me,” Cross said. “You saved my life. You weren’t just a counselor. Wanting to be you is what pushed and motivated me.”
Now Cross is using her journey to inspire her students.
“I hope they understand that you can fall,” she explained. “But you better not stay there, because it’s not an option.”