As a child, school became my sanctuary, my safe place. It became my identity when those around me identified with drugs, violence, and poverty. That is why I have always felt the pull toward teaching.
I am sarcastic. I am a bit of a pessimist. I sometimes rub people the wrong way until I grow on them, so this may come as a surprise to some who know me, but no surprise to those who know me well – I really care about this profession, my students, and those I work with.
Here is my story. Well, parts of it. I am a private person. I am an introvert. My world lies within, and only my wife and perhaps a few friends I have had for a couple decades know any of it. That makes telling it difficult, but I think us teachers are at a point where we need to tell our stories. I will be brief and to the point.
My mother and father were drug-addicted alcoholics. My mother suffered from severe mental illness. We lived in several of Louisville’s worst neighborhoods and there was much abuse, until my brother and I permanently moved in with our grandparents. My brother and I spent our early years bouncing back and forth between our mother and father, until one day, my father told me she was gone, and she was not coming back. I was about 6 years old. Drunken parties, violence, and police hauling my dad off to jail filled the time I spent with him, until one day, we visited our grandparents, and never went back. I think I was about 7 or maybe 8 years old.
During these years, I went to three elementary schools, Cochrane, Lowell, and Brandies. For those of you from Louisville, Cochrane was in the red building on Second Street, which is now today part of YPAS and DuPont Manual. Lowell fell victim to the airport expansion and Brandies was on West 26th Street.
The staff at Cochrane gave me things to do and let me hang out in the office when my mother or babysitter dropped me off for afternoon kindergarten at 9 a.m. because they had other things to do. A staff member sometimes waited for me on the corner of First and Hill when I walked myself to school at age 5 because my mother or babysitter was passed out (I knew at the first showcase showdown of the Price is Right, I needed to head to school). In first grade at Cochrane, Mr. Terrell (I think that was his name) gave all of the students in my class a garbage bag of Christmas presents. I later learned he gave bags of presents to his students each year while watching the late news.
I was bussed to Brandies Elementary. I was already living with my grandparents, which was a lot better than living with one of my parents. That is, we had enough food, clothes, and the neighborhood (Germantown) was better, but it was no easy ride. My grandmother was abusive and my brother had already turned to drugs and was getting into a good amount of trouble. However, Mrs. Georgia Clay (yes, that was her name), wrapped her arms around me every day and read every story I wrote. I loved art, and I loved writing. Brandies fostered those two passions, creating a school newspaper just so kids like me could write and draw cartoons. She gave me a button, “Writer of the week” was on it. Might not seem like much, but I still have that button in a box somewhere.
Mrs. Clay retired mid-year, and Mrs. Scrubb (I think it had two B’s) picked up where Mrs. Clay left off. She gave me an award at the end of the school year – “Writer of the Year.” In fifth grade, Mrs. Longstreet and Mrs. Crenshaw pushed me further than anyone had before. I have taught students who also had Mrs. Crenshaw. I think she is still there. Mrs. Longstreet gave me hard and complex math problems when the math became too easy. Mrs. Crenshaw laughed at my attempts at humor in my writing and we shared stories about our favorite football teams. She was a Vikings fan. Me, a 49ers fan. I left Brandies with love for writing and a first-place Young Authors Award. That honor allowed me the opportunity to meet and spend time with Louisville basketball legend Keith Williams. Do not tell anyone, but I was a Kentucky fan before that meeting. I am now die-hard Cards, all the way.
While these teachers were building me up, my home life was attempting to break me down. Yet, when I arrived at Highland Middle School, Mr. Bruce Pierce picked me up. He spent his afternoons playing basketball with us students and always inspired us to do our best in class. My eighth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Matter, opened my eyes to the world, giving me a completely new perspective on world events.
Middle School was tough, but high school was tougher. I spent years traveling back and forth between worlds. My parents’ neighborhoods were full of crime, gangs, and kids who always made the wrong choice. My grandparents’ neighborhood were full of Catholic school kids whose parents seemed to think their children were better than I was. By the time I reached high school, I did not know what direction I was being pulled in. That is when I retreated into sports.
Cross Country, Track & Field, and baseball allowed me to stay away from my home long enough each day to survive. My coaches, Lester Washington, William (Top) Taylor, and John Doggendorf were father figures. My baseball teammates became siblings. It was cool that we won the Seventh Region Baseball Championship my junior year, too, although I really did not play much. All of these people, along with my grandfather, helped me do something no other person in my family had accomplished – get accepted into college and earn a degree.
Even in college, I had educators watching over me. Dr. Gail Henson became my advisor and surrogate mother. She and Dr. Ruth Waggoner supported me when my grandmother passed my freshman year, when my grandfather passed my junior year, and went to bat for me when I was removed from the cross country team my senior year (for erroneous reasons) and made sure I got to complete my senior season of track. Thanks to her support, I managed to graduate in four years. I have gone on to earn a master’s degree, work as a journalist, and now a teacher.
OK, maybe not as briefly as I told you, but now that I’ve explained what educators have meant to me, perhaps you can understand why I will fight for the profession until my dying days and I will not allow special interest, a lawmaker, or a governor undermine the institution that served as my sanctuary for most of my life.
Public education is worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for kids like me who found a way. Keep fighting.