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New Orleans Ethnic Media celebrate teachers ‘Who Changed My Life’

1st July 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Vivian Po
New America Media
Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: In June of last month, New America Media held an awards ceremony in New Orleans, LA for The Teacher Who Changed My Life essay contest. A collaboration with six local ethnic media partners, three contestants out of a pool of 54 entries were awarded cash prizes for their essays in three separate categories – Teenage, Adult and Teacher in Memory. During the ceremony, winners were honored alongside the teachers profiled in their essays. A booklet of 28 finalists’ essays was also distributed. They will be available soon on the contest site. Below are the winning entries.

Learning Admirable Behavior From Beowulf
Winner, Teenage Category
Profile of Benjamin Davis
by Tyrone Clay

Ill-natured, arrogant, and ill tempered, I was not a model scholar early on. However, I always aspired for greatness. Yet, this aspiration remained merely a dream for many years until I moved to New Orleans and started to look into high schools. I was on my way to enroll at another school, but a man, Mr. Davis, stopped and told me about Sci Academy.

After hearing his plea, I decided to trust this man and this school with my education: it was an excellent choice. My first few weeks were behaviorally horrible. I walked out of class, yelled at my peers—awful actions indeed but Mr. Davis changed me. I was angry and engaged in one of my odious tirades when he ap­proached me. Instead of admonishment and a consequence, he commenced with a didactic, touching speech. From his caring nature, exemplified in these talks, he earned my respect, respect that I could not afford to lose to unacceptable behavior. As I matured, I found that my social maturity seeded from this conversation, which in turn, inspired pure admiration for Mr. Davis.

He also brought me out of my shell. I was always strong in my academics, but I was very shy to talk in class because of my broken teeth. To make me feel more comfortable, he allowed me to sit in the back of the class. This worked until the start of the second quarter. Then, he moved me to the middle of the class and encouraged me to be more vocal and elegant when talking. After stumbling and struggling, I mastered my defect and can now speak with eloquence and strength.

Perhaps most pivotal in my life was his friendship. When I believed my mother was dying, I fell into a deep depression and felt like I couldn’t leave my house for school. However, one day, I went into the bathroom and cried, and incidentally he was in there with me. Sensing my distress, he talked and reasoned with me. Then, he took me to lunch and shared his childhood memories. I’m a very timid person, so I rarely made friends. However, at the end of the conversation I left with not only encouragement to stay in school but a life-long friend.

Now, I am a confident, well-mannered, and proud man. Great schools are now possible futures. Also, my dream of being Supreme Court Justice is now more plausible, and Mr. Davis heavily influenced all of this potential. Mr. Davis’ impact reminds me of a quote from the epic Beowulf: “Behavior that is admirable is the path to greatness among people.” I am grateful for Mr. Davis’ mentorship and will work to fulfill my potential in his honor.

Treasuring A First Grader’s Book of Poems
Winner, Adult Category
Profile of Mrs. Delphenie Butler
by Juwanda G. Ford-Williams

My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Butler, taught me many things: to read, to write and to be quiet sometimes. However, the most important thing she taught me was something long after first grade; elementary; and even high school. I was 26-years-old, when she taught me the “power of teachers.”

At that time, she saw my grandmother, and asked about me. When she learned that I had graduated from college and moved to New York to pursue a career in publishing and writing, she immediately sent me a package. It was a book that I had made as a student in her class, along with a note that said, “I always knew you would do it.”

When I received the book, I was just floored. I had forgotten all about it; but because she was such an intuitive teacher, she knew it was something special, and she kept it all those years. And it was in pristine condition. There wasn’t one scratch on it. That’s when it all came back to me. How she had noticed how much I liked to write, and that I was good at it—even in first grade. How she had encouraged me to put all of my poems together in a book, and had sat with me in class to make the book. I remembered how we discussed the cover, and that she went out and bought the “Winnie-the-Pooh” contact paper I wanted for the cover. It all came back to me, and it was then that I knew how “powerful” my first-grade teacher was.

Well, now, I am blessed to have several published books; but my favorite is still the one that she helped me to make. You see, none of my editors sit patiently waiting for me to finish. No one discusses the covers with me — the publishers just decided what they think is best. And no one keeps a copy of my books safely packed away. I am just one of “many” writers. But with her, I was not just one of “many” students — I was one of her students; and therefore, I was special.

Today, I keep “our book” on my desk. Every day it reminds me of the little elementary school I attended at the edge of the housing “Project.” And of the first grade teacher who taught me to read and write, and that I could do anything I set my mind to do.

I take “our book” with me every time I visit a school as a writer. It has traveled all over the world with me. I tell teachers and students about her; Mrs. Butler, my first-grade teacher. How she was the first person to tell me that I was a good writer, and how she helped me to make my first book; and how she kept it safe for me for 20 years. When I show them the book, they can’t believe it. “Our book” is proof to them, of the “power of teachers.”

A Hellfire Teacher On My Back
Winner, Teacher in Memory Category
Profile of Mrs. Gloria Humphrey Scott
by Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes

“Gloria. Humphrey. Scott.” She announced her name in a booming voice to her new sixth-grade class. She was everything my fifth-grade friends warned me she’d be. Tall, loud, MEAN! “Oooh you got Mrs. Scott?!?” they lamented. With her dark brown hair, peppered silver and carefully coifed, her starched white linen skirt and button down shirt, she reminded me of an usher from the Pentecostal church at the end of my block. They never smiled. Mrs. Scott looked like she never smiled.

I wondered if it was because she was so tall … could a smile work its way to a face that far from the ground? To my little 11-year-old self, her 6’2” frame made her seem of legendary proportions. Her reputation certainly was. “Mrs. Scott not gon’ letcha use da bafroom like talkin’ bout it”; “Mrs. Scott give detention like it ain’t nothing”; “Mrs. Scott don’ kept back mo’ kids den all the teachers at Valena C. Jones put together”; “You definitely CANNOT have fun in Mrs. Scott class!”

I felt doomed. After having made it through the new school blues last year, in spite of being a geeky girl with short natural hair, who loved to read all day, I was looking forward to relaxing this year with my new friends and popularity … but how could I do that with a hellfire teacher on my back?

Yet as she spoke that day, I realized that my friends didn’t tell me everything Mrs. Scott was. Yes she was strict and demanding. Yes she was exacting and fearsome. But she was also engaging, brilliant and sensitive. She was insightful, caring, and knew how to get the best out of her students, from the most productive and creative to the most reluctant and resentful of us. She taught more than reading, writing and arithmetic; she taught us ancestral pride and human dignity, health and self-worth. With a hearty laugh, she gave us much more than we ever knew we needed — on a daily basis, because Gloria Humphrey Scott never missed a day of school!

Sixteen years later, I was pregnant with my first child, walking down Rampart Street reading a book with an African name. I heard a booming voice from behind, “Asali DeVan, walking down the street reading a book like you’re 11 years old, you’re gonna fall in a hole.” I spun around. It was Mrs. Scott! Still tall and imposing, still dignified and beautiful. She was waiting for a friend, I was late for work, so we quickly caught up and shared how great it was to see each other. I walked away feeling happy to have seen her and glanced down at the book. The first name my eyes landed on was Camara, meaning teacher in the Malinké language. Today when I look at my son, eleven years old —we call him Ra for short —I know that the legend of Mrs. Scott, and all good teachers like her, are the stuff that legacies are made of.

The Teacher Who Changed My Life Essay Contest was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This article originally published in the July 1, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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