A Teachers Appreciation Salute To Those Who Paved The Way

As a third generation teacher and a lifelong educator, I owe such an enormous debt to so many powerful educators before me, that it would take a lifetime of service to even begin to show my gratitude. I start by formally honoring my beloved Bigmama/maternal grandmother, our family’s first educator, for setting such a high bar for being an exemplary educator. In many respects my pedagogical knowledge base and experience, the unquenchable internal fire to #EducateToLiberate, even the breadth of my entire career as an educator and writer is indebted to those who came before me and paved the way for the fulfilling life I am blessed to now enjoy. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of the empowered movement to counter mis-education in American schools, theorized that Black students would be increasingly alienated in an educational system unfit to meet their needs. Woodson perhaps unwittingly predicted the inescapable, detrimental effects of the current state of mis-education on Black students in American schools, by arguing that a disregard for the unique Black experience would ultimately render true education unattainable in the U.S. school system. Among the multiple challenges Woodson cited as factors underlying the presence of mis-education were the inculcation of an inferiority complex and a deep-seated self-hatred among the oppressed, Black student; an indictment of the entire educational system as a tool of oppression due to the staunch preservation of outside control; and a harsh criticism of the abandonment of the suffering, impoverished Black masses as the apparent ultimate goal of the Black intelligentsia. Woodson’s targeted indictment of educators and of the Black middle-class in particular, as dismissive of the problems in education, begs the question of how those of us in pedagogy can meaningfully contribute to an enhanced understanding of the interminable problem of mis-education. Certainly, each of the challenges Woodson cited represents themes that are still observable in today’s educational landscape.

I am eternally grateful to the interminable generations of strong men and women and to my Bigmama, who married the love of her life, my beloved Bigdaddy, as a teenager. Over time, she bore ten “stairstep” children (the eldest of whom is my Mother), and somehow, miraculously went back to school – somewhere in between child #5 and #8 – to earn her coveted Bachelors degree and to go on to teach in one of the city’s most respected high school’s. Bigmama’s academic accomplishment was no easy feat for a woman born and reared in the early 1930s. It is apparent how much Bigmama courageously defied the odds when one considers that racism and the insatiable diet of America’s hatred against Blacks, was just one generation removed from the inhumanities of enslavement and sharecropping. At the time, the threat to Black lives was all-encompassing and even more palpable than it is today. Moreover, in the 1930s the role of women was reduced to being only docile and impenetrably cheerful mothers and housewives. When women did dare to explore employment outside of the home, it was at 30-50% of the pay of that of men and this discriminatory employment gap was even more pronounced for those of African descent. To the collective credit of our family and with Bigdaddy’s loving support, Bigmama courageously shattered the common work expectation of Black women to merely occupy a role as ‘the help’, i.e. domestic workers. She blazed a Revolutionary trail of academic excellence by earning a degree and teaching on the secondary level. In later years, she similarly challenged the confines of the gender-biased religious institution by earning a Masters degree and divinity license at Cambridge, after which she miraculously founded her own AME (African-Methodist Episcopal) church. It should come as no surprise, that my Bigmama (displayed above in her regal graduation regalia), is my real-life, in the flesh inspiration and heroine. Ask any Black woman (like myself), who is blessed to enjoy a degree of personal success and career accomplishment in life-to identify our inspiration(s)-and we often don’t have to look much further than our very own mother and grandmother’s. #Blessed

In my case, I was blessed to encounter exemplary educators throughout my lifetime trajectory, so becoming an educator was merely the predestined fulfillment of both my family’s tradition and our ancestors’ collective dreams. At the ripe age of 15, I was admittedly out of my element, when my mother summoned the indomitable will to move across the country as a newly divorced parent of four children. Having secured a well-paying yet demanding national civil rights position, Mama uprooted us from our middle America, middle-class utopia environment replete with enrollment in private/public schools of choice and the lifestyle of a sprawling brick home with a lush garden and backyard in which to roam freely; to take up residence in neighborhood public schools of NJ/NY, often denoted by only a number, to living in cramped quarters, in a literal concrete jungle with scarcely enough space to think or move. Well ultimately, the decision to move proved to be beneficial and life-changing for us all. My elder brother and I went on to attend a nurturing and exemplary HBCU conveniently located in the east coast region, while my younger siblings had their horizons forever broadened by having experienced a rich, bi-coastal upbringing. Most importantly, I was fortunate to meet an exemplary educator who left an indelible impact upon my life and one who substantively influenced my decision to discover my pre-destined career path as an educator. At the time, it seemed doubtful that my life would ever escape the newfound, harsh reality of inner city life in America.

Though I was accustomed to the advanced, college preparatory and admittedly engaging performing arts enriched curriculum of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, MI – I soon struggled with the unchartered territory of gross mis-education in the depressing forms of: the soft bigotry of low expectations encountered on the east coast. My school was accessible to all and very well attended but appeared to only be equipped with: non-challenging, general education classes; bathroom stalls without doors and the newfound need to vaseline my face AND remove my earrings every day (as a safeguard against the threat of potential physical violence), prior to school dismissal and the long walk home. My new reality as a student at Snyder High School in Jersey City, NJ proved to require a major cultural and mental shift, in which it quickly became apparent that I would require less attention to academic rigor, college preparedness and much more energy upon tacit, street smarts in order to survive. The first several weeks of enrollment in my new, neighborhood high school environment I did just that . . . survived. I learned to survive the promise of daily beat-downs from a popular, upperclass female student, Octavia, who swore up and down that I had purposely enticed her man Junebug (I did not). In my defense, I fought all attempts to avoid Junebug’s wandering eyes although I was not successful, (and for the record, yes this is his actual nickname). With every passing day, I attempted to postpone Octavia’s summoning wrath, to no avail. My valiant efforts had increasingly proven futile because Junebug made it clear that he was especially intrigued by at least exploring the pursuit of the new girl, who met the physical description of being “thicker than a snicker”, despite appreciating the beautiful young woman he already had the privilege of claiming. Alas, despite all attempts at being purposefully withdrawn in hallways, at lunch and in all public spaces outside of the doldrums, which had become my daily classroom routine, this only increased his enjoyment of the sport of the chase. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Octavia made it abundantly clear that for simply existing in her world, my ass was in imminent danger.

And so it went, a vicious cycle of banal classes and escaping unwarranted bloodshed, for weeks on end – until one day after uncharacteristically speaking to a classmate (I had learned to temper my gregarious personality and loud, booming alto voice in week 1 because I was incessantly teased for sounding so ‘country’ and not having perfected the NY/NJ accent), I was overheard speaking too loudly in the school’s auditorium, the one room which amplified my already loud voice. It was then that Mrs. Williams, the English Department Head who had been assigned to supervise an overcrowded group of students relegated to the auditorium (due to the lack of substitute teachers to cover classes), stopped speaking abruptly and demanded “wait, who said that?” “who was just speaking?” “you…there, what is your name and where are you from?” she demanded. Having realized I was busted for socializing and that there was no escape from the inevitable, I rather hesitantly raised my hand and stated my full name, grade and then dutifully admitted that I had just moved to the area from Detroit, MI. I had foolishly believed that the addition of the extra information, that I had just moved to town, would somehow absolve me from further judgment and embarrassment since the once loud auditorium was suddenly rendered eerily quiet. Apparently, my rookie mistake was in thinking that I was in trouble because before I could scarcely finish the part about being from Detroit, Mrs. Williams had already swooped upon me to proclaim that she knew I wasn’t from there because of my accent and she then proceeded to shower praise upon my diction and elocution while she asked a series of questions. As it turned out, Mrs. Lillian Williams was the resident powerhouse of a high school English teacher, spirited leader and mentor (almost all schools have at least one dynamic personality), who blessed the lives of so many generations of students in her lengthy tenure as an educator. From that day on, Mrs. Williams became my bonafide guardian angel, who promptly assessed my academic abilities; introduced herself to my Mom; enrolled me in advanced placement humanities courses and an offsite performing arts program, appointed me as the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper (exhaustively mentoring me all along the way), and lit a flame of fire into my counselor’s non-existent efforts to engage the college enrollment protocol at once, in order to ensure an academic scholarship to the university of my choice, upon high school graduation.

The impact of positive exemplars in my lifetime is not limited to educators – however there is no negating the pivotal roles that each one of the aforementioned ‘gems’ has had in my self-image, goal-setting and career. Without Bigmama’s deft ability to successfully juggle the full-time obligations of: wife, mother, teacher and preacher – I would never possess the tireless drive needed to bounce back from life’s misfortunes and to emerge virtually unscathed. Without Mrs. Lillian Williams and her determined, passion-driven zeal to ensure the success of her students; her infectious belief in my own abilities when I had intentionally extinguished my own light; her effortless phenomenal woman persona and constant reminder not to shrink in order to attempt to fit in with my peers; and her loving, selfless insertion into my impressionable teenaged life there is no doubt that I would not be the woman who I am today. Furthermore, without the persistent admonition to pursue lifelong learning from Dr. Clifford Watson, yet another impactful educator mentor and the founding principal of Malcolm X Academy in Detroit, MI I would never have explored the NYC teaching fellowship, to earn my masters and later my doctorate degree(s) in education. Lastly, without Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s impressive and trailblazing record of scholarship; his uncompromising insistence on the inclusion of African history into the educational experience of Black students and his literal lifetime commitment to countering the mis-education of Black students in America, there would be no impeccable blueprint with which to #EducateToLiberate.

Indeed I am, because we are . . . and during this meaningful and annual observance of #TeacherAppreciation, I humbly salute those who paved the way for my educational career and for the opportunity to craft a life of my dreams. Asé.

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Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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