What’s worse than a young person with a gun? Tough to answer? Nah. My answer, is unequivocally, a young person who walks into a school and doesn’t believe in his or her ability to overcome. Doesn’t matter the task, this lack of belief wins the hearts and minds of young people every day; especially those from impoverished communities where education is their ONLY sense of hope. And this hope is challenged daily.
My students did an assignment last year on stereotypes. I would say a word, and then they would write down the first word that came to mind. And then from the bigger lists of words, students would hone in on two words and compile lists of the words they generated individually. The two terms they chose to focus on were “Northside (referring to North Minneapolis, MN, where our school is located), and gang member. For Northside, the students wrote down the terms and phrases: crackhead, homelessness, fast food restaurants, violence, death, gangs, rape, dirty, liquor stores. For gang member, they chose: violent-someone who needs love-crying out for help-loyal. What shocked me most wasn’t the words from each topic that were synonymous either in literal or connotative meaning, it was the amount empathy they associated with gang member and the amount of disdain they held towards their own community.
How can I expect my students to see their own greatness when they see nothing positive or uplifting around them? And when people from outside the community view them with disdain, pity, or both. How can I expect them to walk in everyday and open a book, speak their truth, when they’re told to sit down and be quiet?
My role models growing up sold drugs, played sports, and rapped…I remember plenty of days where I wanted to make sure my pants sagged the way Allen Iverson’s did. Things get blurry when I try and recall being someone who enjoyed reading, or being in advanced placement classes. In reflecting, I am able to see how my culture defined what I valued in myself and who and what I aspired to be. The culture that I grew up in was not and still is not a culture that puts young African American people in a position to be successful. In fact, the culture I grew up in only reinforced the systemic oppression that was instilled in the hearts of many African American communities’ centuries before I was thought of.
See, I was influenced. I was influenced by violence, negativity, ignorance and a sense of hopelessness…because that’s what I saw, and that’s what was placed on me. But as I got older, and through different divine interventions, I began to experience things and as a result, I began to see life differently…my work as an educator, has helped me understand the importance of my role in influencing my community and empowering members of my community by providing them with a model of positivity and black excellence that can give young people like the younger me, and others who come from conditions worse than myself, an alternative to aspire to…I’ve been homeless more than once. I’ve made mistakes…I’ve been down, I’ve doubted myself and my ability to contribute in this world…but I’m here…and I’m here because of gang members who told me I had to get out. Drug dealers who wanted me to stay out the streets and stay in school because they saw my potential. Because of a white woman from a small town in rural Minnesota who became a mother figure in my life. I’m here because of my own mother who took what little she had and moved us from the violence in Chicago to give us a better chance at life. Im here because of people of all colors and experiences with amazing hearts…to the mothers and fathers from communities like mine, who strive every day to make a way, thank you…you may not know it, but your intention is what inspires me.
Every single one of you wants your children’s childhood to be better than the one you had. You want them to have more. In every sense of the word…more love, more hope, more belief, more self-acceptance…more success…But at the same time, you want them to have less. Less pain, less hurt…to make fewer mistakes. To the beautiful young people…you young kings and queens who come from kings and queens…you are the royalty that I serve daily…and make no mistake about it, I am HONORED to serve you…strive for greatness…and not the greatness that you see on tv or in movies. Not the greatness you see in somebody else. But strive for the greatness that’s within you. Young kings and queens, Slick Rick said it best. “The world is yours.” You all offer a unique perspective, a unique set of experiences that no one else has been through. Everything you are, and everything you are not, makes you special-so accept it.
We are in our own race in this life…with different starting lines, and different weights on our back. Some of us are in cars. Some of us running, some of us walking- Some of us crawling-but we’re in this race. Never accept less than the expectation you have for yourself in ANY situation…appreciate your struggle…own it because it’s what makes you great and your struggle is what will allow you to come back to your community and give back in any way you see best. And however you decide to give back…make sure you doing it as a model of excellence for those who are coming up under you…if you take anything away from everything I said, take this-I’m important…and I know it. Not because of an award, or a shirt, or blazer, or what’s in my bank account (which ain’t much)…but I’m important because every day I wake up with an opportunity to serve and give back. That’s true wealth.
“No person has the right to rain on your dreams”…when I think of this, I immediately think of my babies. The young kings and queens that I am privileged to serve daily…and I think about the thunderstorms and hurricanes that have cascaded down on their dreams since they could formulate them…and I think of my own life and what I thought teaching would be and what I thought my life would be. I remember graduating college and being homeless, living out of my car…dreaming of having enough money and stability to raise my daughter who was coming soon into the world. I dreamt of providing stability for my own children through teaching. I thought of teaching as being an avenue for me to help young people grow as learners through literature. But like anything, and as we all know…dreams have a way of taking on a life of their own.
After making mistakes and being burnt out and not understanding why my students were not bought in to their own greatness, I sat and reflected. Not on them, but on me. I was failing them. I didn’t think that I was who they needed. And more importantly, I didn’t think that I could give them what they needed. But then I met a young man who will remain nameless, who had recently moved from East Indiana, and was trying to find his way. He too, lived in poverty his entire life. And it wasn’t until coaching him in basketball that I began to understand who he was, his hopes, his insecurities, his wants for his mother. But in those conversations on the way home, he began to teach me. See, this young man had gone in a short time from being somebody that struggled and slept in class (a lot), to someone staying after school to do homework. He became engaged in class, and full of an energy that I had never seen from hi. It was through conversations with him on the way to his house that he taught me that what I had given him was not content knowledge or standards mastery, but what I had given him was my time and my love. As a result, I had given him hopes and dreams that he didn’t see possible when he first got to Minnesota.
That realization changed me not only as a teacher but as a man. I swore from then on to love on my young kings and queens so hard that they too, would feel love unconditionally. The same unconditional love I longed for as a youth. And they too would then be filled with hopes and dreams. See, I didn’t realize how important love was. And not just any love, but unconditional love. The kind that shows grace, compassion, patience, understanding and respect. Someone had given that to me, and I wanted to pay it forward.
This became my new dream. To pay it forward through love. To let my heart lead me and influence my actions. To be whatever my babies needed me to be. When I became the MN teacher of the year, I realized that I was given a platform to share stories of how my young people have influenced not only my teaching, but my heart. I’m not perfect, I’m not the best teacher, but that doesn’t matter. Because I strive to grow, just like the young people I teach. I strive to learn from my mistakes, just like them. And I yearn to dream, just like them. It’s true, no one has the right to rain on my dreams, or anyone else’s. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen and that people and life and circumstances won’t pour on our heads. My dream now is to be their umbrella. We all need someone to protect us, to love us, to care about us when we feel alone. To hug us when we feel like crying. To affirm us when we feel down. I want to be THAT for my young people. For the rest of my life and theirs.
Watch Abdul Wright, 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and 8th grade language arts teacher at the Best Academy in Minneapolis, describe the importance of empowering students who live in poverty.
Abdul Wright is an eighth grade Language Arts teacher in North Minneapolis. He also holds the title of being an Instructional Coach and Data Team leader. He has taught Language Arts for the past five years. Mr. Wright strives to make a positive difference in impoverished communities,while also striving to be the best version of himself. He completed an African American Leadership program in the Spring of 2016. Also graduated from Hamline University in the Spring of 2016, with a degree in Education. Mr. Wright earned his Bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts and Literature in 2011. He received the Minneapolis PeaceMaker award from the city of Minneapolis I 2015, received “ the You’ve Made a Difference” award from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in 2015 and 2016, and is the recipient 2016 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. The first black male to receive the award, the youngest, and the first from a Charter school.