Friday, January 21, 2022

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The Me I Needed Back Then…

by Nathan Stephens

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Malcolm X

As far back as I can remember, education and going to school has been a positive experience for me. School provided me with hope that I could have a life outside of the projects. I fondly recall receiving awards and certificates in school and also at the Fun City Youth Academy during the summer.

There is a certain amount of power that can come from getting an education. That power was revealed to me during elementary school. One day at Grant Elementary School I met Mrs. Decker, a special education teacher who worked with me because I allegedly had a reading problem. During our visit to the school library, Mrs. Decker told me to pick out a book to read and I chose a Star Wars book. In my young mind Star Wars represented a future that was better than my current reality. Shortly after I began reading my book, Mrs. Decker looked bewildered and confused. She then asked me to read from a book required for our class written by Mark Twain. Twain wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sailing down the Mississippi River with Nigger Jim. Mrs. Decker noticed that my energy dropped and inquired about it. I shared with her that I didn’t like Tom Sawyer’s tales about “White washing fences” and that the use of the word ‘nigger’ in the book offended me. Mrs. Decker explained to my homeroom teacher that, “he doesn’t have a reading problem, he has an interest problem.” And she was right. I was not the least bit interested in a racist like Mark Twain who was celebrated so much in Missouri. But it was through her education that Mrs. Decker was able to advocate for me and share her assessment of my reading ability.

Experiences like these and others suggested to me that education enables us to be in positions like Mrs. Decker to advocate for youth in a system like the public schools. The disproportionate rates of suspension and the academic achievement gap are correlated strongly with the school to prison pipeline. The need for advocates in positions of influence are strongly needed. But the ability to enter those positions often require having an education and credentials.

It is important however to make a note of the difference between education and schooling. Because children are required by law to go to school, that is schooling with the purpose of providing a baseline education to be a good citizen. Education as I define it is self-motivated learning and getting something out of the experience for ourselves. For example, during my undergraduate studies, Columbia College required me to take a history class that was an elective. Rather than Western Civilization II or History of Ancient Greece, very similar to my ‘Mark Twain’ experience, I opted to take a Black History class with former Black Mizzou professor Dr. Robert Weems Jr. Likewise, when my degree plan required me to enroll in a humanities elective; my desire for an ‘education’ led me to a Mizzou course on Black literature where I learned about Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Paul Roberson, and many more from the Harlem Renaissance. It should be noted here that I sought out and fought for the ability to take these classes. They were not suggested to me by anyone at Columbia College. Again, I urge students of all ages to seek out educational opportunities that enhance their knowledge on a personal level when they can.

As parents and community members, we should encourage our young leaders to take advantage of these types of opportunities to learn more about themselves, more about Black people, but to also position themselves to impact the educational experiences of others similar to how Mrs. Decker did for me.

As an Assistant Professor in Social Work at Illinois State University, I am now in a position to influence the educational experiences of Black students in my classes who make up 8 out of 60 students. Additionally, I can help to educate White students on how to engage Black people and other people of color who sign up for social services with respect and dignity due to their experiences with a Black professor.

Positioning ourselves to advocate for and to educate others goes not only for people who are seeking degrees but also for anyone with a skillset and knowledge that can be shared in their respective places of business. A perfect example of this is the late Almeta Crayton who did not have a college degree but became the first Black Councilwoman in the City of Columbia. I also think of people like Sarah Brown or Al and Debra Harris who can easily teach other races about ‘Black hair.’ Or how people like Lloyd Henry and Darren Jordan can teach the insurance industry about Black people’s insurance needs from an insurance agent or insurance industry regulation standpoint. Finally, I think of game changers like NBA superstar Lebron James who never attended college but was visionary enough to have his friend Rich Paul involved with learning the business of the NBA. Now Rich Paul is one of the most influential sports agents in America with several major star athletes from different sports contracted with his agency. We must always seek opportunities to place ourselves in positions to change the game. Whether it’s Lebron hiring Rich Paul, building a school in Akron, OH, or being one of the leading voices for social justice as an NBA superstar. His basketball skills provides him a platform, but it is his seeking knowledge on his own that enables him to be in a position to do good in an informed manner. Education remains a passport to the future, while we should differentiate education and schooling, we must also remember that various forms of knowledge can put us in a position to do a myriad of good.

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