I am half black and half Filipino, and was raised by a single mother who wanted me to have everything. But, like many of our neighbors in our military neighborhood in Washington state, she lacked the resources necessary to deliver. In a world that can sometimes give up on people like me, I was lucky enough to encounter teachers who saw my potential and helped me achieve it. This Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank one teacher in particular, Ms. Freeman, for believing in me, never giving up on me and, in so doing, quite literally changing my life.
In second grade, tests showed that I was not proficient in math. In third grade, I was still far behind in math, and reading comprehension was also a challenge. My third-grade teacher advanced me and the other “slow” kids to a fourth-grade teacher who gave me straight As, despite my abysmal attendance and poor academic performance.
Then, in fifth grade, Ms. Freeman, came along. She had a reputation for being mean. She tested students on the first day of school and issued over three hours of homework daily – most of it reading. She started every day with nearly impossible English, math, science and social studies puzzles, which we had to copy in perfect cursive before attempting to answer. She was unapologetically tough.
Her high expectations motivated me to excel and clarified for me the importance of school. I was changed deeply by her belief in all of her students: if Ms. Freeman saw what I was capable of, then I would work hard to meet her expectations.
Now, I am a college graduate and former Congressional staffer and currently work at a nonprofit that advocates for great public schools for all kids. Many of my friends from the military neighborhood back home didn’t make it. Many of them are in prison or have low-wage jobs struggling through the symptoms of deep poverty and low expectations.
I constantly ask myself, what if Ms. Freeman had given up on me? What if she had pointed to my single mom’s income, my family make-up or my race and tossed her hands in the air shouting, “Lost cause!” Thankfully, she refused to take her responsibilities as a teacher lightly. Like many teachers—but certainly not all—she believed in the black boy who showed up to her class far behind. And because she did, I’m able to write this today.
Some say that teachers can’t do much to help black and brown kids. Some say that our staggering race and income-based achievement and opportunity gaps are due to a lack of family involvement (code: their fathers are not in the picture) or student apathy (code: black and brown kids are genetically predisposed to failure and laziness). Some say that we first need to fix poverty before we can improve student outcomes.
I say, look at Ms. Freeman. Look at my story. Nothing can do more for students of color than teachers who believe in and push them—as Ms. Freeman did for me. This Teacher Appreciation Week, I encourage all of us to thank the Ms. Freemans of the world and acknowledge the transformative power of education—the exact tool we need to end the cycle of poverty, not the thing we improve only after poverty is gone. I also ask that all teachers aspire to see their students as Ms. Freeman saw me. Believe me, your students will thank you.