First Person Singular
I'll never forget my first day. This was in Southeast D.C. [The principal] said, "There'll be an aide in there with you, and you'll have lots of support. She'll help you." Lies, all lies. I went in there, and [the students] got their books, and I said, "Let's go around the room and read." One little boy, he started out . . . "t, t, t." I mean struggling. I didn't have a teacher's book, so I went over; I looked. It was "the." I said wow. Wow. "Let's go to the next person." After 10 students, they could not read a lick. This was third grade. So I got my cellphone out. I said, "Ma, could I read in third grade?" And she said, "Yeah, why?" I said, "I think you should be able to read in third grade." I said: "These kids can't read. What am I going to do?" So I got off the phone. I prayed, and I said: "Lord, I don't know what to do. They should be able to read." I asked them about some math; they didn't have a clue. They didn't know their times tables; they didn't know how to subtract. So that day I went home, [and] I dialed 1-800-ABCDEFG -- from watching the infomercials. I said, "I'm going to get Hooked on Phonics." Now I'm sure there were resources in the building or programs that they had, but I didn't know. I ordered Hooked on Phonics. It was, like, $300, and I said, "I need you to overnight it."
We would sit down every day. I mean, from letter recognition to sounds, blends, and it just built up. They learned to read. I just did what came naturally. I just worked it.
I do more preaching than teaching on many days. I'm straightforward with them. I let them know: Education is about choices. It's not about A's, B's, C's, D's. It's not about, you know, rewards, punishment. I said, "There's nothing wrong with working in McDonald's" -- people always hang that over your head -- "if you want to work at McDonald's. But if you don't want to work at McDonald's and you have to -- that's because you have not taken advantage of your education."
This is my ninth year. It is draining, but I stay. I thought about packing my stuff. I [could] go places where it's easier to teach; but I don't feel like that's where I belong. This is rough, but this is what I'm supposed to be doing. If I won't do it, who will?
Interview by Robin Rose Parker