Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life, by ABC correspondent Deborah Roberts, is available now from Andscape Books. It includes essays from dozens of well-known people, including media mogul Oprah Winfrey, film director Spike Lee, ballet dancer Misty Copeland and Oscar award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, each recalling teachers who were important in shaping their lives. In the excerpt below, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker recalls a pivotal moment from elementary school.
Mrs. Majors was my fourth-grade teacher at Ashbel Smith Elementary school in Baytown, Texas. It was the 1960s, and the school had recently fully integrated. There had been resistance and it was a slow implementation.
Mrs. Majors was a very stylish, thirtysomething white woman with a Marlo Thomas That Girl haircut. She took a liking to me because I think I stood out as one of the few Black students in the school. I was the only Black student in her advanced reading class. At the time, I was struggling at home. My mother had remarried and brought us to this community. I was not particularly happy that I had left my Aunt Ida and the warm little town of Ames, Texas, population 1,200. Also, I was very challenged because I was a gay little boy, and coming to terms with that during that time was something that weighed heavily on me.
My home life was volatile, violent, unsettling, and disturbing. I was acting out by being disruptive, being difficult, or belligerent. On this one occasion, I was in the hallway at school and a boy called me a sissy. I slugged him in the face, and he got up and hit me back and we started rolling around on the hard linoleum floor.
I remember the fluorescent lights and seeing the lockers and kids running around. Mrs. Majors grabbed me and pulled me away. She didn’t look at the other boy. I was bloody, I was shaking, I was so angry. I was crying, physically decomposing because I was so upset and angry. It was humiliating to be called a sissy. I had kept fighting him because I wanted to humiliate him the way he had humiliated me.
Mrs. Majors pushed me into the boys’ room, “Get into there and clean yourself up. I’ll be waiting outside for you.” My face was a mess. I was crying. I put my head over the sink and started to clean up. When I finished, she was waiting for me. I had my book satchel. “Come with me.” I followed her to her classroom. She closed the door and said, “Look at yourself. I’m ashamed of you. I expect so much more of you than this.” I said, “He called me a sissy. I hate him and I can’t believe this happened.” I couldn’t sit in my seat I was so angry. She grabbed my shoulders and said, “Calm down. Darren, you have got to understand — little Negro boys like you who do not learn to control themselves, bad things will happen to them. You have to gain self-control. You have to learn how to control your emotions. You must control your anger. If you cannot do this, bad things are going to happen to you.” In her own way she was telling me the harsh reality. It was the first time I heard someone say you have to learn self-control. In a society where injustice exists, it is perfectly reasonable to be enraged as a Black person in this country, but she was preparing me for a world that did not always welcome me. She knew that I needed to be fortified. Part of that fortification was developing tactics and strategies for managing feelings of anger and rage. Some people would mistake her telling me that Black boys need to control themselves as racist itself, affirming a racist system. She wasn’t affirming a racist system; she was confirming a reality. If she was a racist, she wouldn’t have told me this. If she hadn’t believed a little Black boy could be successful in the world, she wouldn’t have taken the time. She would have sent me to the principal’s office. She invested in me. She thought I was capable of doing great things. It was a generous and radical act of kindness. It was an example of what a great teacher can provide. The life lesson helped me as a child but continues to this day to help center me in a world where I often feel anger.
This lesson has stuck with me throughout my life: As a Black gay man navigating university, law school, and education systems that were white. Coming to New York City and facing racism and homophobia on Wall Street, visiting a historic Black church, and moving to Harlem in the ’90s. That lesson of self-control is embedded in my psyche as a critical tool and strategy for coping with the things that I see — the things that have happened to me or others that I believe are enraging and deserve anger. I’ve had to learn to modulate and to be comfortable with having part of that anger be contained. Mrs. Majors was right. There is not and was not room for me to display the kind of anger that for some white adolescents might have simply been excused by He’s a typical rambunctious, tempestuous boy.
Often people will use their fist and immediately sound off. Even though that was my culture and home life, I built upon the foundational grounding Mrs. Majors gave me. We have to comport ourselves whether the situation is fair or not. We can’t focus on whether it’s fair or not; we know it’s not fair. I am aware and conscious that there is a real price for that. The mental and emotional toll of suppressing this is a price that is paid by many of us. My point has been figuring out where to put that and how to cope with that.
There is nothing more selfless, generous, and kind than offering oneself in the service of educating others, in preparing young people for the journey of life. Equipping young people with knowledge, character, and qualities that help them grow and develop. At the center of it is the noble idea of service that is often overlooked in a society corrupted by inequality and the unbridled pursuit of capital. Teachers can feel marginalized in a society like that. Yet that society cannot function without teachers who care, who act in selfless ways to ensure the next generation is prepared and able to be good citizens and honorable people.