I have been mulling over the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri this past August and the thing that has really struck a chord with me is this all to common response: what can one person do? It’s a frustrating response in so many ways. It’s a coward’s choice, and must be a very painful thing to hear for people in the throes of ongoing unjust treatment. Unfortunately many people would rather do nothing than risk doing a wrong or offensive thing, and many simply don’t see the small steps that could be taken to advance the cause of justice. I don’t think I have any answers but I do have a story.
The one person who has mentored me more than anyone in my professional life is my cousin Kathleen Delaney. She has spent her entire teaching career in some of the lowest income schools in the Chicago area. She has told me stories about her students my entire life–stories about the ones that have inspired her, worried her, made her laugh, made her cry, and sharpened her understanding of the injustices so many face every single day. This August as she was preparing for the school year she stepped across the hall to introduce herself to a new teacher in her building. She was met with a shout of joy and a warm embrace from this new teacher.
The woman had been an 8th grader in my cousin’s school decades ago. Kathy taught 6th grade and after school she coached the girl for the district speech competition. They chose the address of Chief Seattle from 1854 and worked on it together after school for several weeks. Before the competition my cousin gave her the picture book version of Seattle’s speech written by Susan Jeffers. What she didn’t realize at the time was that the girl’s family had come to this country illegally. The mother was struggling to raise five of kids on minimum wage. That book was the first one the girl had ever owned. The first book anyone in her family had owned. They read it until it fell apart. This girl decided to become a teacher, in part because of my cousin’s example. Her younger brothers and sisters who had Miss Delaney in 6th grade reported that she was the “hardest” teacher in the school, the one who assigned the most homework. She was the one who believed that they could do all that work, even though they were new speakers of English.
This former student took her college classes one at a time over many years because her immigration status made her ineligible for financial aid. But she stuck to her goal year after year and now after all this time, she and my cousin will be teaching side by side. I’ve done author visits for my cousin in recent years and her students are quick to tell me that she is still the hardest teacher in their school. They feign agony in reporting all the writing assignments she’s given but it’s easy enough to see their pride underneath all that complaint. Some of them come voluntarily to school an hour early every day to work in her room before school starts.
I mention all this at the start of the school year because my cousin cheerfully points out that there is nothing unusual about her. Most teachers mentor students before and after school. Many have very high expectations for even their most impoverished students, and almost all of them give away hundreds of books over a teaching career. So this is my thank you to all of you for all you do to change lives, to raise up one literate generation after another, and encourage those who enter school powerless to leave it with something to contribute to the world. It’s easy to get discouraged and in the minutia of daily work and lose sight of your power.
You make history every day. When a child learns to read, you change that entire family’s economic fortunes forever. Our economy cannot function without you. I’m grateful–to my own teachers, my children’s teachers and all of you everywhere who work with students wisely and generously every day. Thank you!