As we celebrate Black History Month and pay homage to our milestones, I reflect on my time inside the classroom. As an African-American woman my purpose in this place, at this time, has been to not only provide my students with the academic skills they need, but with the character and life skills they need to be successful.
When I was in elementary school, my schoolhouse was my family. The community was such a huge part of our learning. My teachers had also taught my mother, aunt and uncle and were childhood friends with my grandparents.
In the barbershop across the street, there was a library where we read books that never failed to inspire us as we worked on our homework while waiting for our parents. We picked pecans from the neighborhood trees and nearby grass lots and conducted field lessons in the trails and pathways outside of the school building. In this schoolhouse, I learned perseverance, resilience, kindness, accountability and, most importantly, confidence.
The most memorable part of my childhood experience was that many of my teachers looked like me. From the principal of the school to the cleaning crew, I shared the same hue as that of the excellent professionals who filled the hallways of the building where I loved to learn.
In that place I discovered a love for writing and reading. I studied jazz, ballet and tap dance. I learned to explore my interest in art, spoken word and debate. Our music program provided piano and violin lessons for students who were interested.
Expectations were high and excellence was demanded
Prominent Black business owners, lawyers, doctors, council women and writers frequented our classrooms and fed our imaginations. Not only was I told that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but I was shown what success could look like in the future. It is incredibly sad to me that because of financial hardships and low enrollment, Robert C. Chatham Elementary—a school that for so long nurtured kids like me on the north side of Houston—closed in 2007.
My lasting lesson from my own schooling is that representation in the classroom matters. It has the power to show us our own potential. Students have to see success in front of them in order to dream success.
My purpose as an educator, teaching in the community where I was raised, is to give my students that something special I felt as a budding student in Chatham Elementary. My purpose as an educator is to demonstrate that just because statistics show we are not supposed to make it out of the low-income communities; just because society portrays those who look like me as unsuccessful and uneducated; just because history says we should not succeed; we can, and we will.
A daily mantra my students hear and repeat is, “You are and will be the best you can be because I believe in you, no matter where you come from. Your circumstances do not dictate your outcomes.”
As we continue to educate our leaders of tomorrow, let us not forget why we teach. We teach to bring hope to our dreamers. We teach to bring awareness to our young men and women who may not see their impact on society. We teach to bring voices to the voiceless. We teach to bring opportunities to those who may have thought they never would have had them.
Let us remember during Black History Month and beyond that we teach to lift every voice of our students, no matter color, ethnic background, birthplace or religion. We teach to inspire.