Teachers aren’t the only educators on campus; every adult on school campuses are vital to the educational success and development of our youth. Too often, the unsung heroes of education, janitors, bus drivers, campus safety offices, campus monitors, secretaries, and volunteers, go without being recognized for the vital role they play in the lives of our youth. One of my heroes ran the cafeteria at Washington Elementary School.
My mother raised my sisters and me by herself, so when she left the house in the morning to go to work, we all left the house together. Often, this meant we were among the first students at school in the morning. There wasn’t much to do before school started, so I asked if I could volunteer in the cafeteria before school. To a kid who didn’t know any better volunteering in the cafeteria was like heaven. I had access to the best of the best of the breakfast selection and had somewhere safe and warm to be.
I volunteered in the cafeteria from 3rd to 5th grade every morning. At the start of my 5th-grade year, my teacher, Mrs. Simmons, hosted a parent meeting where she had a guest speaker make a presentation about the annual American Heritage Tour. This tour would give students in my class an opportunity to visit the 13 original US colonies and come face to face with the history we read about in our textbooks. Of course, I was excited and took the information home to my mother and begged her to let me go. The trip cost $1300, and Lord knows we did not have that money. But she told me if I worked to save and raise the money I could go.
Over that next year, along with my sisters’ help, we hosted dinners, dances, bake sales and sold candy. I also had friends and family donate to support. We worked as hard as we could, but on the day before we left, the deadline to turn in all funds and I was called into the office.
My heart shattered as I learned that I was $50 short of my goal. Tears welled up in my eyes and my heart sunk into my stomach.
Mrs. Simmons, Mrs. Jacobs, and Mrs. Thompson were there and all of them teared up when I did. They asked me to call my mom to see what we could do. When I called home, I knew I would get an answer that I did not like. It was only $50, but my mom just didn’t have the money. I went back to class heartbroken, being so close but so far.
I was called back to the office a second time. This time, our lunch lady, Linda was in the room as well. I never knew what her last name was, but I remember she told me to call her Linda. As I held my head down crying, Linda walked over to me, dried my tears and held my chin up and looked me in my eyes and said, “Stop crying. Baby, you should know better than that we are going to take care of you. You work hard every morning and serve people with a smile, and you never complain. I even saw those times you made sure those kids who didn’t have money had food to eat. We see your mom struggle to raise you and your sisters and we know it’s hard, so we are going to help you because you deserve it.”
She handed me a check to pay off the balance for my trip and then some, so I had spending money. I ran and hugged her, and she told me that it was my job to make sure I did the same thing for someone else when I had a chance to do so.
That trip changed my life, fueled my thirst for knowledge, sparked my wanderlust and most important, expanded my horizon. I vividly remember visiting the White House and being amazed at the prestige of the building and making it a goal to come back one day. That was a goal that I accomplished last year when I was invited to the White House for a briefing and reception in honor of my work benefiting young boys and men of color. As the president spoke, I sat and reflected about how I had gotten there.
I often wonder what might have happened to me had it not been for Linda caring enough about me to ensure that I did not miss out on a great opportunity. To some, traveling is an opportunity that is taken for granted. In my work, I am often reminded how impactful travel can be – especially leading summer learning programs and having a front row seat to students seeing a beach for the first time when they live only miles away.
Often, kids only believe as far as they can see. If our young people only see what lies within the boundaries of their hometown, that is as far as they will set their goals. Imagine how impactful it would be if we did a better job at rallying around our youth and providing opportunities for them that expand their horizons, even if we broaden their horizons by taking them to see what is outside of the walls of their city. If what I have accomplished so far can be viewed as success, I have only reached this point because of the caring adults who intentionally gave me opportunities to do so. We have to ensure all students are given the same chance.