When I was in junior high, I had the opportunity to take part in an accelerated language arts program. This meant that I was able to handle a bigger workload and take on more responsibility. The teacher was a plump man with a round face, facial hair, and a ponytail that went down to the middle of his back. He looked like the type of guy who loved books.
No, I love books.
I mean, LOOOOVES books.
The first assignment he gave us on the very first day of school (really, who does that!) was to read Fahrenheit 451 within the first two weeks of school. As I shockingly gazed at the thickness of the book, along with the “further required reading” list that accompanied the book. I knew that this class wasn’t for me.
I went to my counselor.
So my counselor took me out of the program and placed me in one of the regular classes. I walked into the class and gave the transfer sheet to the teacher. This was no ordinary teacher, this was a woman — a black woman, which was weird because I had only ever once encountered a black female teacher throughout my academic career (at that point).
She took the slip from me.
“Mmmmm-hmm. You can sit over there.”
I sat — still in shock.
She had a personality that was bigger than life, she had a loud, booming voice, she had a slight southern twang to her voice, and she did not take shit from anyone.
…and I mean anyone.
To tell the truth, I was scared of this woman for the first quarter of the school year. Every time she asked for a volunteer, I sank a little lower in my seat. When she wanted one of the students to diagram a sentence, I would stare directly at my paper, trying my damnedest not to make eye contact. When it was time to go, I would hurriedly get my shit together and get the hell out of that room.
One day, everything changed. That day, I did not get my shit together fast enough.
“How come you never give the answer?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you have the answer. I know you came from the accelerated class. You need to start answering the questions in class. Don’t hide your genius.”
I was confused as hell. Although I have been trying to avoid her, she has been paying attention to me.
“Tell your mom and your sister, I said hello.”
From that moment on, she would push me academically and personally. She would be one of the most influential people in my life — often giving me lessons not only on being a man but a black man as well. She would teach me about responsibility, she would teach me about perseverance, and she would also teach me about respect for myself and for others. I had a mother at home, and I had a mother at school.
What started out as a teacher to student relationship would years later become a relationship as colleagues as I was hired in the same district that I grew up in, and that she still taught in. What I did not know was that she was always looking out for me and doing what she could to give me every opportunity to succeed.
Sixteen years after I sat in her classroom, moved to another state, and started a family, I embarked on a mission to attain my doctoral degree. In the orientation class, we were tasked with writing a letter of appreciation to the person who got you to this point. To tell the truth, many helped me along the way. But there was one person who took it upon herself to not only discuss just how successful I could be but to hold me to a higher standard based on that potential.
I found out that Mrs. Francine Jackson passed away on May 11th. I never knew if she received that letter in particular, but I think she knew the impact that she would have on my life and the lives of countless students in our area. I can only hope that I am living my life in a way that would do her memory justice.