I like to brag. Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify my statement. When people brag, they like to laud their achievements and/or abilities over others. That is not what I do. I do brag to myself. I think of a separate me who has not done what the actual me has done. Then, I ended up telling myself that I feel good for what I did.
As a young black lad, it was ingrained in my brain that I was expected to go far and do well in school. I was expected to study and do my best all of the time. I owed it to myself, my parents, and to those who gave up their lives so that I could get the best education. I knew my mission. Failure was not an option. The next day, I started Kindergarten. As I took my educational journey, I knew that I always wanted to be a teacher. I just did not know what subject I wanted to teach. In the end, I accumulated an Associate, Bachelors, a Masters, and a Professional Diploma all from St. John’s University here in New York City. I ended up becoming an English teacher for 40 years of my professional life.
See? I am bragging already.
I worked very hard to become a teacher. I also worked very hard as a teacher as well. I take the job very seriously. Now, I am getting ready to transition out of the profession to retirement. In doing so, I thought back to certain milestones of my life. Some were good. Others were bad but turned good.
Here is a case in point.
In 1970, I graduated in a Catholic elementary school’s eighth grade class of 60+ students. In all honesty, because of some social situations involving most (but not all) of my classmates, I never took an interest in attending any of their reunions if any had taken place. My knowledge of how everyone turned out was picked up in casual conversations with somebody if we had met somewhere for some reason. That being said, I found a former classmate of mine. Ironically, he was retained in a grade and thus graduated a year behind us. Whether he was still there at the school after I graduated was unknown to me. Usually, those who were retained in a grade were transferred out of the school in order to attend another one. The reason was completely unknown to me and, frankly, I just did not care. I had my plan and I was sticking to it no matter what.
I stopped at a store to pick up something to eat. That is when I saw James. We had a casual conversation that resulted in the question, “How are you doing? I haven’t seen you in a while, James.”
His response? “I couldn’t do well because the man kept me down.”
I do not know who or where this “man” is, but I was certain of one thing. The only “man” who could have kept James down was James himself. Did he study? Did he work hard in school? Did he apply himself? Was the use of excuses his way of dealing with tough situations?
I was honestly stunned. He could have said that he had terminal cancer. That is how stunned I was to hear him say what he said. I wondered if he thought about how tough life was going to be as he moved on. I remember that I was about to graduate from high school very soon. If things were that tough in high school, how was he going to deal with life when it gets tougher?
I just absorbed his answer and bid him adieu. He had no idea what life had in store for us. I don’t know whatever happened to him. I hope he did much better than that day. Up until then, I only saw him hanging out on street corners with his friends while I traveled to and from school. That alone told me everything I needed to know about him.
During high school, I hung around a person named Fred. He and I were band mates. I played the trumpet and he played the baritone horn. I was also in the class ahead of him. We generally joked with each other and hung out together. Where I had to put effort into my studies, he seemed to have it a bit easier. He was able to grasp concepts much faster and much better than I could. Aside from practicing our music, he would read. I was certain that, because of his academic ability, we would also meet up in college. In short, after our respective graduations, I went on to college. He joined the workforce instead.
I went back to visit my high school shortly after receiving my Associates degree. I brought it with me so that I could show my former teachers and thank them for helping me. I sought out my Biology teacher, Mr. Chisena, but did not see him right away. I crossed the hall to see the other Biology teacher in order to show her my degree. That is when my mood went from happy to angry in the same time span that it would take a Porsche sports car to go from 0 to 60. She looked at my degree with her expressionless white face and said, “You went to St. Johns? I always thought that your friend Fred would have been the successful one, not you.”
I had no idea what she was thinking. Was she inadvertently telling me that she did not expect blacks to do well and attend college or was she saying that she wasn’t expecting me to do well and go to college? I did not know, but I did know that I had to leave or a profane yelling match would have started, resulting in me getting barred from visiting my alma mater.
When I got home that night, I thought about that incident with that teacher. She was not MY teacher. Even if she was my teacher, what made her think that I could not succeed? Success was part of my mission. Success was the basis of my mission. I added an additional level to my mission. I always dreamed of not just being a teacher, but I also wanted to be a school administrator. After becoming a school administrator, I wanted to go back and find this woman, show her my administrative credentials and say, “You better hope that I am not your boss one day because if I was, I’d fire your behind without a moment’s notice.” Yup, it was on!
I returned to St. John’s with my goal burning within me. I went on to get my Bachelors and Masters Degrees in English Education. It was at that point when I felt that I was on equal ground with Smith, but I was not where I wanted to be… not just yet.
In 1996, I decided to return to the postgraduate level at St. John’s in order to obtain my administration credentials and certification. It was 14 years since someone put a degree/diploma in my hands and I wanted that feeling back. It was like someone was handing me a world’s championship except, in this case, I could never lose it. It was all mine.
I took this time around very seriously. I played around too much in my undergraduate years and did much better in my graduate years. I wanted to work my behind off because my Professional Diploma would mean that I would be halfway to a doctorate. I could not screw this up. It would also be my fourth milestone as far as college achievement is concerned. I never bragged before, but this would give me a good reason to do so.
In high school, I met the one person—John—who I would eventually despise. In our earlier times, we would hang out, play pool, and even go to the movies. We had a nice circle of friends—all of them were friends of his—but I would not complain. His highest educational level stopped at his high school diploma. When I started on my PD, however, his true colors came out.
I remember the incident very well as if it happened an hour ago. I was at home one Saturday evening doing my schoolwork. I was teaching in the AM and attending my courses at the campus in the PM. That day, I had a pile of papers to correct for work. Student handwriting was already tough to read, but it is even tougher when you are tired. I was tired. Still, I had to get it done. Then, my cell phone rang.
“What are you doing?” he said.
I told him. “I am marking some papers and I need to get this done right now,” I responded.
John then delivered his first ignorant salvo. “Well, just give them all A+’s and let’s go. We want to play pool tonight.”
Feeling insulted already, I had to inform him of my duties as a teacher. “No, I need to read each one of these papers and work on them.”
John fired back, “You don’t need to do all that work. Just give them the A’s. My teachers did that with me.”
Well, that was all I needed to know. Not only did he insult me, but every teacher I knew and did not know. It was at that point that I refused to hang out with him because he clearly showed me that he had no respect for teachers.
On another Saturday night, the same thing happened again. This time, I had to do mt PD work. The same phone rang with the same voice on the other end.
“What are you doing tonight?”
I responded, “I have to study. My professor is giving an exam on Wednesday.”
Ignorant John then replied, “I don’t know why you have schoolwork. You do not need to go back to school all the time. You don’t need to keep going back to school.”
Well, that was the last straw. That did it for me. I went back to school because I WANTED to go back to school and I had the ABILITY to go back to school. I did not need an idiot who only had a high school diploma to tell me, a person who was just educational inches away from the most celebrated degree on the planet that I do not need to go to school anymore. I guess that the old adage was true: Misery loves company. Just because his life was unpleasant did not mean that I had to join him and wallow in his educational ineptitude. Nope! Not me.
He even tried to demean my chosen and noble profession even further by telling me that he was a teacher, too. His idea of teaching was to look at a Cameron Diaz movie called Bad Teacher or the Welcome Back, Kotter TV series to get his idea of what teaching must be like. I knew at that point, he was the only brainiac I could not educate. Yes, you cannot teach an old dog named John new tricks. That was the very last time I ever spoke to him and I never want to hear from him again.
I am proud that I became a teacher. Until this Common Core stuff reared its ugly head, I did quite well for myself. I stayed in school. Even though my academics were not where they should have been at first, I eventually got them to the point where I saw my goal, aimed and achieved. I let no one and nothing get in my way. I stood firm in where I wanted to be. I am hoping to make a salary so that I can return to SJU and get my doctorate. I can do it. I have a solid record of accomplishments that proves it.
Then again, I guess that I have every right to brag. I always will brag when it comes to defending education.