When They Were Us: Mrs. Rebecca De Leon

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“What is above must be below” is a saying familiar to many Honors Chemistry students because of Mrs. Rebecca De Leon. While the saying originated to help students learn how to balance equations, in the same regard, Mrs. De Leon had to balance her own life as she embarked on her educational journey.

           While Mrs. De Leon grew up in Smyth County, Va., education wasn’t something stressed in her community. “It was a big priority in my home, but not necessarily the community. The biggest reason for that is because it was a very low-income community, where most people went to work at factories or become stay at home parents,” she said. “I grew up in a family of six children, and I always wanted to be the ‘helper.’ I was determined to create a better life for myself so I would never feel the struggles that inherently come with poverty.” 

While in high school, her chemistry teacher was not the most involved instructor. “We never really did much of anything [in her class],” Mrs. De Leon said. Despite that setback, Mrs. De Leon pursued the subject in college at Virginia Tech. “When I took my first chemistry class in college, it was really intimidating; I didn’t know pretty much anything about chemistry,” she said. “My [college] teacher made it so approachable and so easy to understand, that I felt like there was a door that was opened for me,” she said. 

Mrs. De Leon admired her older sister growing up, something that she constantly notices traces of. “Growing up, I would listen to 80s pop and heavy metal, like Metallica, AC/DC and Guns and Roses. My mom hated it, but I was like, that’s okay, I’m gonna listen to it anyway,” she said. “At the time, I just wanted to find myself. I listened to some of it because I really liked it, and some of it because my older sister, who I wanted to be like, also listened to it,” she said. “I still listen to Metallica, and what’s funny is that when I went to college at Virginia Tech, the opening song for the football team was ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica. It was kinda funny to get to Virginia Tech and go haha, I still listen to Metallica.”

Her family, especially her older sister, was a significant motivation to educate herself further. “My older sister and I were rivals. We hated each other, like some siblings do, but now we’re best friends. At the time, she was like ‘you’re not gonna graduate early, you can’t do that’, and I was like ‘just wait’,” she said. “I was so dead set on proving her wrong and getting to my future, I was like ‘she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ It helped me focus just that much more.”

Eventually, Mrs. De Leon graduated high school two years early and had planned to finish college as early as possible. She cites her determination to learn as a driving force in her life, and she still carries it with her throughout her teaching career by pushing her students to learn as much as possible while maintaining a positive atmosphere in the classroom. “My classmates from high school would 100% think of me as the nerd. I graduated high school [along] with my older sister, and all of our friends knew that I was very eager to learn,” she said. “I was the student who would finish their work early and ask for more homework. I would finish a test or quiz, and ask for more sample problems . . . I was very serious about my education, and I wanted everyone else to be as serious about their education as I was. Obviously, that doesn’t always happen, but I thought wow, this is really important, if I’m gonna have a good life, I have to have a good education because I was always told that the world can take everything from you. It can take your home, people that you love— friends, family— your clothing, your food, anything. But your education is something that can never be taken away from you, ever, because once it’s in your mind, it’s there forever.”

However, due to deaths within her family, she decided to get a job rather than immediately go to college. Mrs. De Leon worked as a medic and firefighter for a decade before deciding to continue her education.

Her college chemistry classes sparked her interest in chemistry, leading her to pursue the opportunity to teach the subject. “My teacher was really excited about chemistry, and how to learn the different concepts. She made it seem really easy, and I thought everybody should feel like chemistry is easy to them. After I took my first chemistry class, I was hooked. I love teaching chemistry and helping people understand it better,” she said. 

Alongside managing her college classes, Mrs. De Leon worked two jobs, conducted biomedical research and cared for her son as a single parent. “That workload taught me how to manage my time wisely and to find pockets of time to study,” she said.

She was also a part of Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity. However, she sought to combine her love of volunteering with her interest in science, leading her to join Alpha Chi Sigma, a chemistry-centric co-ed fraternity that hosted outreach programs with children. “We did a lot of demonstrations and science experiments at libraries on the weekends and hosted science week for students to come into the college. [We did] really cool demonstrations like elephant’s toothpaste and setting up electrodes, things like that,” she said.

Before coming to Heritage, Mrs. De Leon graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree of Science and a Masters Degree in Public Health. She also tutored chemistry and taught at Virginia Tech while attending graduate school, along with teaching ESOL Biology in Virginia. 

Mrs. De Leon has been with Heritage for four years, previously teaching at the Palm Beach campus before switching to Broward this year. She makes sure to support her students by giving them a break from chemistry lessons and hosting “Mindful Mondays” and “Thoughtful Tuesdays”. During Mindful Mondays, Mrs. De Leon shows her class an animation of a cute and encouraging ghost that uplifts students’ spirits amidst the stresses in Honors Chemistry. On Thoughtful Tuesdays, students can write appreciative messages on seasonally-related paper to be displayed in her classroom, room 9210. 

She cites seeing her students succeed as her biggest reward, and encourages her students to ask for help when needed. “If [students] have any issues with their classes, studying or just trying to understand how to better manage their school life— I always suggest that they speak with a teacher and get their perspective [on those issues]. It’s always good to get somebody else’s perspective, and sometimes it’s good to have that outsider’s perspective,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated to ask for help or ask teachers for their perspectives because we’re here to help— not just for teaching, but also to support everybody in their experiences while they are in high school.”

Mrs. De Leon received her Masters Degree in Public Health. Her mother (left) was an important figure throughout Mrs. De Leon’s life, and played a key role in instilling the importance of education in her. “My mom reminded me that everything in life is temporary, and that [my hardships] would eventually change and get better. She would come visit me on the weekends and bring home-cooked food, both of which always boosted my morale.” Her son (right) also motivated her. “When I started to feel tired or discouraged, I just imagined the amazing life I would be able to provide for him and I.” (Photo/submitted by Rebecca De Leon)

Mrs. De Leon changes the theme of her room with the seasons. For her fall theme, students were encouraged to write uplifting messages on pumpkin shaped paper, similar to her spring theme and cloverleaf papers. “I think [the decorations are] cute, it’s nice to walk in and see the new changes around the classroom,” sophomore Luce-Gabrielle Etienne said. (Photos/Ann Zohar Hershkovitz)

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