Everyone has a story to tell. Our stories document our journeys and who we are in this world. However, we often underestimate the impact of our stories and how our stories connect us to our purpose and to each other.
Several years ago, in my role as Superintendent, I had the opportunity to attend a conference designed for female administrators and met Dr. Robyn Jackson, a young African-American woman who owned an educational professional development company. She shared stories from her past about her teaching experiences that were familiar to everyone in the room. They were stories about her worst fears and her greatest achievements as a teacher and then administrator. Her stories made us laugh and validated our purpose and appreciation for ourselves. They helped us to see each other and to connect.
Never underestimate the power of your stories. I want to hear your stories and learn about the ways in which you have and still are navigating your course throughout this world. I want us to share the ways in which we are trying to make sense of it all and how we are trying to make this world a better place. This won’t happen all at once. I see this as a continuum of strands of stories with different topics spun in various ways.
Let’s begin this first strand of stories with the topic: Why and how I began my career in the field of education.
After I finished college, I wanted a job. I needed a job. I received my bachelor’s degree in Fine and Performing Dramatic Arts. But the dreams of a small-town girl, going to New York and making it big on Broadway was soon dispelled. I had the talent. But I didn’t have the money or patience. I needed a job. So, instead of going to the Big Apple, I went back to the sweet Orange – Florida, home. I knew I would be able to find something that would give me a steady cash flow because it was home and I knew a lot of people. I was tired of being broke. I had a degree from one of the most prestigious institutions in America, Howard University. Of course, I would get a job. Little did I realize how difficult it would be.I scoured the job market tirelessly to have doors slammed in my face because I was either overqualified or underqualified, something that so many new college graduates experience even now. So, finally, I ended up taking several part time jobs – one with a local television station as an evening news teleprompter and camera operator; and another part time in an afterschool program at an elementary school. I dreaded being behind the camera, and even worse was rolling a script for someone else to read on a teleprompter. I was told that this was an entry-level position and this is where I needed to begin to get my foot in the door. But this was 1980, in Florida where the schools were still operating under a desegregation law. I soon realized that my foot wasn’t going to get too much farther. I was young and black. The reality was ‘they’ already had one black female on TV and this little city was not ready to accept another black woman coming into their living rooms telling the news. I knew I had to keep looking for another job. I was constantly hearing that if I couldn’t find the job I wanted, go into teaching. But, I didn’t want to teach. I wasn’t interested, but I needed a job. I finally gave in and decided I would give it a try. I began by working in a federally funded special afterschool program to provide activities for latch-key kids. Each afternoon I reported to my assigned elementary school and assembled my little group. At least I was able to use some of my training in psychodrama to connect with the students and keep them interested. I knew something was working because the teachers were talking. What was happening to little Johnny was incredible. After he was in these after school drama classes, he was more attentive. There was a change in little Debbie as well. And the students were talking about Miss Sybil and all the fun they had learning and the things she taught them and how she treated them. This started to be a conversation in the school. And more of the ‘troubled’ students were just kind of being dropped off in my classroom. In little or no time, I went from conducting class in a small classroom with about 15 students to moving to the cafeteria with 75, then 125. Then one day, it happened. Several of the teachers cornered me and asked when I was going to be a full-time teacher. I simply responded: “Never!” and then proceeded to tell them that this was just temporary. But they had different plans for me. One of the teachers went on extended maternity leave. I was asked if I would help out by being a substitute teacher. I agreed! That was mistake number one. Number two was falling in love with the kids. I really enjoyed being with them and seeing them get excited when I taught them something new or helped them master something they struggled with. So, I guess you’re wondering what was mistake number three because it always happens in threes. Mistake number three was when I actually was encouraged by the other teachers to apply as a full-time teacher. I did. I was told that unfortunately, the district was not hiring black teachers at this time. They would be happy to call me to substitute, but if I was looking to be a full-time teacher, that option was unavailable to me. However, they had a job at one of the large high schools as a Security Officer which I should apply for. After I left the human resource office, I cried for about 3 days. My reality kicked back in. I realized that I had come home. A home that didn’t see my worth or value. I was black. I was young. I was a woman. It meant nothing that I was successfully educated through their public school system. Or that I graduated with honors. My academic accomplishments were minimized. I was marginalized. I needed to know my place. But, I needed a job with benefits. I took the job and for 7.5 hours a day for an entire year, I would patrol the parking lot in the hot Florida sun, as the highest, most overqualified Security Guard employed. This humbling experience prompted me to think that maybe I needed another degree to prove that I was smart and deserving. I believed and was told that being a Black woman, meant that I would always have to be better and achieve more. So, I made up my mind that I would pursue a master’s degree. I was accepted to grad school at the University of South Florida. I packed my bags, the following summer and lived on campus as a Grad assistant in charge of RA’s and taught speech communication and public speaking classes. Who would have thought that I would leave one oppressive environment only to continue to have to fight against the grips of marginalization and exploitation in this new ‘academic’ environment.