TUPELO – Melissa Boatman grew up poor. She was the oldest of three girls being raised by a single mom. Her father wasn’t in the picture.
Every day after school, she’d go home to an empty apartment. Sometimes there were lights and heat; sometimes there weren’t. Sometimes there was food in the house; sometimes she went hungry.
By the time she entered the fourth grade, she’d been mentally, sexually and physically abused by a string of her mother’s bad boyfriends.
But Boatman knew she was special. She knew she had potential. She knew these things because one teacher cared.
“Mrs. Elmore sensed I felt like I didn’t fit in,” said Boatman, 37. “She took me aside and told me how smart I was. She brought my sisters and me jackets and clothes. She took me to church. She took me in like I was her own child.”
Margaret Elmore Robinson was Boatman’s third-grade teacher at Verona Elementary.
“I remember seeing her family and thinking if that’s what a family looks like, I want to have a family like that. I wasn’t going to drink or do drugs – I was going to do whatever it took to get a family like that,” Boatman said. “Seeing how she lived had a total effect on my life. She instilled in me my faith in God and I never let it go. My faith just grew. She helped me rewrite my life story.”
Boatman was born in Tupelo and raised in Saltillo. In May 1997, she graduated from Saltillo High School.
“In my family, you were encouraged to graduate high school, then you got a job in a factory and that was that,” she said. “I wasn’t taught to go further in my life. I don’t remember ever thinking about college.”
In 2000, a restless Boatman moved to Atlanta. Two years later, she started school to become a medical assistant, working in a pediatric clinic to help pay for her education. She married a police officer, Brett Bousquet, and thought her fairy-tale life had begun.
“After we’d been married a year, Brett committed suicide,” Boatman said. “There was no warning, no signs of depression. After I found his body, I remember sitting in my car and thinking, ‘How did I not see this? I was his wife.’ But because of my faith, I didn’t let Brett’s death tear me down.”
Boatman knew she needed to leave Atlanta, to go home and start her life over. And she did that with her best friend, Andy Boatman.
“Andy and I were best friends since 1997, when we worked together at Office Max after high school,” Boatman said. “When I married Brett, Andy was my maid of honor.”
In November 2003, she moved back to Mississippi and four months later, she and Andy were married.
She began working as a medical assistant for North Mississippi Medical Center, where she would stay for nine years. The Boatmans would welcome three daughters to their family – Elsa, Olivia and Julia.
Early in 2012, Boatman said she repeatedly began receiving messages she couldn’t ignore. They were from God. He was telling her she needed to go back to school.
Hitting the books
“As much as I loved working in pediatrics, I knew deep down I wanted to be a teacher,” Boatman said. “But I had three kids and I worked full time. It wasn’t the right time to be going to school.”
Eventually, when the messages became all-consuming, Boatman made a deal with God.
“I said, ‘OK. I’ll go back to school. I’ll take two classes and prove to you that I can’t do this and then you’ll leave me alone,’” she said.
At the end of the summer semester at Itawamba Community College, Boatman had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.
“So I figured I’d keep going to see what happened,” she said. “I felt like God was pushing me forward.”
In January 2013, Boatman started classes at Mississippi State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Later that year, she began working as an assistant teacher at Nettleton Primary School while going to school full time.
Six months later, she found out she was pregnant with her fourth child, a boy.
“I just cried and cried because this was not part of my plan,” Boatman said. “And I heard God laugh at me. It wasn’t part of my plan, but it was part of his plan – not only could I go to school and work with three children, but I could do it with four.”
Davis Boatman was born in February 2015. In December, his mother graduated from MSU with a 3.53 GPA. She is the first person in her family in three generations to graduate from college.
Her husband and children were there to celebrate the milestone, as were her mother, her father and her stepmother.
“Not all my family was happy for me,” Boatman said. “Some of them thought I was being a snob, that I thought I was better than everybody else because I went to college.”
But she has worked to make sure her children know better.
“My sisters didn’t make it out of high school,” she said. “They both had babies when they were 15. I stress to my kids that they will graduate high school and graduate college and then they can get married and have a baby. That’s the order.”
‘I like who I am’
Boatman took the Praxis, a teacher certification exam, to get a license to teach special education. In January, less than a month after she graduated, she started work as a certified teacher for special education for second grade at Nettleton Primary.
“When I worked in pediatrics in Atlanta, a couple of the kids had cerebral palsy,” Boatman said. “And they could light up a room. They didn’t have bad days. That’s why I wanted to do special ed. Not everybody learns the same. You’ve got to search and find what works for that child. You may get lucky and have an ‘aha moment,’ or you may never know if you reached them, but either way, you’ve got to know you did your best.”
Looking back on a life filled with challenges most people will never imagine or endure, Boatman said she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently,” she said. “I wouldn’t change any of the abuse or marrying Brett because that’s part of who I am. And I like who I am.”
Boatman’s story could end there, but it doesn’t. She got to see it come full-circle.
“Before I graduated, I ran into Mrs. Elmore at Kroger and we talked and had a big boo-hoo fest,” Boatman said. “I was finally able to tell her, ‘You changed my life. You helped me rewrite my life story. The moment I stepped foot into a classroom, I knew it was where I belonged.’”