I barely graduated from high school. Barely, because it wasn’t until graduation day, just before rehearsal, I was given the OK to participate in the ceremony. I had to retake a science class my senior year and was doing no better as a 17-year-old than as the 15-year-old who first took the “evil” class. No one in my family knew this little secret and it never occurred to me that they would even care.
Clearly, I haven’t always appreciated the value of education, but experience and time have a way of forcing things upon you. After all, experiences are the fertile ground from which strong views are formed. My personal experience as it relates to education is in no way unique, but what is pretty extraordinary is the accidental heroes who saved me from myself creating a lifelong desire to return the favor.
It’s the Little Things
I was a solid “C” student, doing just enough to stay in school as the building was my refuge. For six hours a day I didn’t have to be home, and I did the bare minimum in order to maintain this arrangement. So, while my peers were doing things like preparing for the ACT, visiting colleges and working on their hope chests, I was content to think no further than the next day.
There were a couple of teachers who looked beyond my aimlessness and lack of motivation, and instead saw a sliver of potential. Mrs. Williams and Ms. Evelyn, both Black, seemed to have organized in a fit of urgency to save me prior to graduation. Both invited me to their homes—no doubt to illustrate to me my potential—and offered to pay me to do odds and ends for them.
The work never seemed to match the money. I know now they were introducing me to another way of life and taking me out of the life to which I was accustomed. I’m forever grateful for these two fighting on my behalf.
College Bound, Sort of
Even with the two miracle workers fighting to keep me from myself, getting into a college was no small feat. Yet, I did it. I stumbled onto a college campus armed with zero information about how to navigate this new world. Further, I had no connections and little help, so I dropped out.
After dropping out, I went to work for a small, neighborhood grocery store frequented by prostitutes and drug users. Oddly enough, I loved working there because I truly believed I was placed there to help my people. But while there I received so many messages regarding the importance of education, my education: little messages from the mailman-by-day and preacher by Sunday, that one cute guy who would come into the store to buy a piece of candy just to show off his college wares, an unfortunate situation with a drug addict, and the meddling White store owner.
I was 18 and confused on what to do, but clear on the idea that I needed to do something! Then it happened. That thing that flips you on ear and forces you to come to terms with whatever is pending. It was hot that day and a lady with long sleeves came into the store “high as a kite.” The lady made a bed in the bread aisle before picking up her items and heading to my line. As she was fumbling with her money a live needle fell from her shirt landing near my hand. It was 1990 and information about AIDS and needle usage was as much a part of the American conversation as anything else.
My first reaction was to look at the woman in her eyes and what I met there would haunt me to this day. I was unprepared to see the shame and hopelessness, but it was the regret that moved me. I’d lived with an alcoholic/drug addict and knew how selfishness plays a major role in these situations. This lady was more concerned for my safety than her own embarrassment. Here, I discovered how one decision, one act has the power to affect life-altering change.
Soon thereafter, I went into action by deciding to follow my best friend to her college. Unsure of how I would pay for such a thing, I visited the school and made connections with the financial aid office who would stick with me until my first day of class. Meanwhile, my store owner was constantly inquiring about how I would pay for college. I mean, he knew better than anyone how much I was getting paid. So, he took matters into his own hands. My paychecks started getting fatter and fatter! And let’s just say, I was blessed with a good start. (I was blessed with an opportunity to thank him many years later.)
My Story Continues
In the words of an old gospel song “He looked beyond my faults and saw my needs.” I’ve been fortunate in a thousand little ways. Although it’s but a fraction of my story, it’s the part that illustrates the power of community and loving your neighbor. I owe my passion and fight for great education to a few people, strangers, who decided I was worth fighting for. I take each act on my behalf very seriously. So, my work continues.