Growing up in an abusive, violent home. Struggling to survive with little money in a violent neighborhood. Angry and absent from school. This is a girl most adults write off. She’s too broken to save.
I was that girl.
And this is what I needed to hear: You have a future. You have a purpose. You are smart. You are precious. You deserve a good life.
That’s what I heard, so that’s what I built for myself.
I did it with a lot of support from people who saw my purpose—first from the folks at the I Have a Dream Foundation, then from the nuns at my Catholic high school, and for a very long time from one special mentor and friend, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who convinced me I was good at math as a sixth-grader and then kept cheering me on for 25 years.
Most of my early schooling did not prepare me to succeed in college. I was just trying to get by based on my life outside the classroom. However, when I started to understand that I had a future to live for I worked a little harder each day. Others sparked me to have a glimmer of hope. My home life did not prepare me to succeed. I have spent my life trying to prove I am worthy, that those people who wrote me off were wrong about me, and so I am trying to change everything about what my life once was, a 360-degree turnaround.
I have two teenage daughters, and no one is writing them off or just trying to “get them by.” I visit their schools. I get to know their teachers. They play sports—basketball, volleyball and squash. They travel to new neighborhoods, and the world is open to them in ways it never was for me. Everything we have is a blessing, so we always try to be humble.
Yes, the responsibility falls on the parents. We have to be there for our kids, to provide the resources and guidance they need. I learned from my mistakes, but a lot of parents can’t even admit the wrong they’ve done in their lives. It’s never too late to right wrongs as parents, forgive yourself and do what’s best for your child.
I learned that it’s not about me anymore, it’s all about them. I see it with my niece—her teachers know her mom is not involved in a healthy way in her life, and my niece is judged for it and as a result the support she has received has been limited.
If children don’t get what they need from their home, others have to step up. We can’t give up on these children. We can’t let let ourselves succumb to the Belief Gap. Teaching is more than just giving kids the words in a book. Teachers should always keep in mind they are mentors and in some cases the only outlet a child has.
So the next time you meet a child who seems so lost and trapped, tell her this:
You are precious. You have a purpose. You have a future.