My Journey as a Proud Michigan Educator
Lola Mae and Joe Harris, my grandma and granddad, preached about the profound power of education, constantly and literally — my granddad was a pastor for nearly 80 years. They encouraged me to soak up every drop of knowledge possible.
Lola and Joe were always open and honest about the limitations of their formal education, which stopped at fourth and sixth grade respectively. I will never forget my granddad asserting, “If they would have let me, I would have been a veterinarian.” He stated this many times. He grew to be a veterinarian in his own regard. Near and dear to my childhood was the time I spent at my grandparents’ house in the country surround by pigs, chickens and rabbits. I looked up to my grandma and granddad, admiring their wisdom in ways I cannot fully articulate. I am so proud to be their granddaughter.
I was born in Detroit and grew up in a rotation of apartments and houses that were heated half of the time by an oven (who doesn’t want to smell cookies and good ol’ cooking from their mom?). I was raised by a strong mother, who exposed me to books and art, engaged me in conversations that pushed my thinking, and did everything in her power to make sure I was being educated and challenged both inside and outside of school.
As a teenager, my mother was on her way to an Ivy League institution when she found out she was pregnant. Her pregnancy, coupled with the fact that my father was Black, was enough to expel her from school. While neither her pregnancy nor having a Black partner altered her ability to finish high school, the school and community disagreed. She was forced to finish her K-12 education via a GED program. Her educational pathway was completely altered, as was, I would argue, the rest of her life and the lives of my younger brother and myself. Nonetheless, she sacrificed everything and made a way for us out of what seemed like no way possible. My mother was the epitome of a strong woman, a proud woman, a phenomenal woman.
“KNOWLEDGE MAKES A MAN UNFIT TO BE A SLAVE.” – FREDERICK DOUGLASS
From a very young age, I knew that getting an excellent education would be my ticket to achieving my goals and dreams, becoming the accomplished daughter and granddaughter I sought to be to honor my family and prove our legacy to those who doubted us (whether due to race, class, early parenting, or otherwise). Education would allow me to become all that they dreamed of for themselves and experience all they had worked to provide for me.
My brother, Jordan, and I were two of the few African-American students in our school district throughout our K-12 years. As someone who is a proud educator, I’d love to say that our teachers, school and district leaders, and peers were supportive and inclusive. The reality is, they weren’t. It’s not that everyone was unwelcoming, yet enough people were for us to realize that we had to fight for our right to be at a homogeneous school that offered an amazing public education. With a hunger for knowledge and sheer determination, I made it through school with a 4.2 GPA, well-equipped to succeed at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor for my undergraduate career.
My brother’s story is completely different. Teachers often told him, “You’re not like your sister.” To be clear, my brother is far more intelligent than I ever will be. The difference is, I preferred to learn through lectures and reading and I tested well, while Jordan preferred hands-on investigative learning that was often not offered. What was worse was that peers would harass him for, well, being a Black man.
Jordan was eventually expelled. In our district, expulsion was one method of driving families out of the community, as there was only one district in the area and we grew up well before the “school of choice” era. Fortunately others’ lack of belief in my brother did not deter him. He is a successful young man with a great job, and an older sister and family who are very proud of him.
WHY STUDY COURT CASES WHEN I CAN PREVENT THEM?
During my senior year at the University of Michigan, I interned with the American Friends and Service Committee as a legal advocate. I was essentially a free, unqualified lawyer. I worked with men and women who were incarcerated within the Michigan prison system. Most of my cases involved advocating on behalf of people of color and/or of lower socioeconomic status who had committed a crime that half of the students on my privilege college campus had committed. The only difference was, my college peers were White and/or from affluent families.
One case in particular changed my life. An older Black man had been incarcerated for decades for robbing a store to feed his family. He held up the store clerk using a pointed finger in his coat pocket to appear as if he had a gun, taking a loaf of bread. He was charged and convicted not only for the robbery, but for the same charges that would be applied had he actually had a gun and had shot and killed the clerk. I was infuriated. I felt helpless. I was tired of seeing Black men constantly targeted and wronged. If it wasn’t shackles, it was cinder blocks. If it wasn’t laws preventing literacy, it was expulsion from school. I sat in the small office we had and thought to myself hour after hour that my clients were no different than me; I was no better than them, no smarter than them.
That same year, I found out my brother ended his pursuit of finishing high school. I kept thinking to myself, I am no different than him. Why am I at University of Michigan on a full-ride scholarship while my brother has a tenth grade education? I knew the answer. The education system had failed him. It targeted him and committed a grave injustice in his life. I saw my brother go from a young, bright, curious, joyful little boy to a young Black man who was constantly being targeted by the school system, society, and the law. I felt helpless. There was only so much I could do at that point. After all, what child or human being would want to actively choose to put him/herself back in a situation in which learning wasn’t differentiated, wasn’t fun, and meant being demeaned and reminded of the negative things mainstream America thinks of you? I kept asking myself, what if someone had intervened sooner? What if?
It was this case and my brother’s educational experience that led me to confidently and apologetically discontinue my path to law school to dedicate my days to preventing court cases rather than studying them. For me, this meant teaching those who society didn’t want to teach or serve equitably, providing the kind of education that my grandma, granddad, mom and brother were robbed of.
“EVERY CHILD DESERVES AN EDUCATION; EVERY CHILD IS CAPABLE OF RECEIVING AN EDUCATION.” – MS. HARRIS
After graduating from college, I moved to St. Louis, Missouri to teach Middle School English, Social Studies, and AVID. I had the privilege and honor of working with 150 brilliant minds throughout their sixth through eighth grade experience. Most of my students self-identified as Black and many came from lower socioeconomic households.
At the time, St. Louis Public Schools was an unaccredited district. Whether it was their race, class, or the public school system they landed in, I knew that my students were facing the same odds that my brother and I had been up against. I worked relentlessly to ensure they received the best academic, social-emotional, and sociocultural education I could deliver. I worked to connect school lessons with their personal lives, held one-on-one biweekly student conferences, started afterschool tutoring, partnered with other women on staff to start Secrets of Sisterhood (a mentoring initiative for young women), formed a school step team, drove my students home when they needed rides, and took them on weekend outings.
I wasn’t the only teacher doing this. My school family was committed; they were passionate. We gave our all for our students to have their all. Academically, our students earned the highest state assessment scores in the district (outside of the district’s “gifted” school). Upon promotion from middle school, a dozen of our students went on to occupy 65 open seats at Metro High School, a feeder school to Harvard and one of the top high schools in Missouri. Our students weren’t just test scores. They were amazing, brilliant young minds that deserved the world — and each and every day, the Compton-Drew ILC school family gave our all to ensure our students had the best, academically and beyond.
Teaching is hard work — one of the most noble professions one could pursue. As the years went by, I found myself talking on leadership roles and influencing educators in my school and beyond — as my family and my students weren’t the only ones facing the harsh realities of oppressive systems in America. Eventually, I found myself expanding into national education work. Nonetheless, my thoughts and actions have and will always be grounded in Ms. Harris’ classroom, Room 106.
I was so proud and humbled to be my students’ teacher — and I still am. Not only because they are amazing (they are!), but because I felt that I could be the teacher that so many before us were denied. Don’t get me wrong, I was not perfect. However, I was serving my community, preventing more students from being denied an education because they were Black, Brown, poor, or simply not born in the “right” zip code.
Education is something that, once you have it, cannot be taken from you.
This is who I am. This is what I have experienced. This is why I teach. This is why I am a lifelong educator. This is why I am a Proud Michigan Educator.
Celebrate the work of proud Michigan educators on social media using #proudMIeducator. #proudMIeducator is a campaign of the Michigan Department of Education that aims to acknowledge, celebrate and elevate the work of great educators in the state of Michigan.