”Mrs. Cain, I am doing better in school than I did before, but I don’t think I’m any smarter.”
”Nation, you know where you are going to bed and where you are going to wake up each day. You have plenty to eat. You are in a better situation. You had the same potential all along, but you are just in a stable environment now.”
I was a precocious student, and my classmates did not always love me. The term “teacher’s pet” was frequently lobbed my way, but the first deep connection I can recall was to my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Cain.
The conversations I had with Mrs. Cain would help guide the direction of my life. I do not remember the exact words of each conversation, but they largely centered around my own confusion around how a country that seemed to have so much could have so many citizens with so little. I constantly poked and prodded around my own experiences, which began with teenage parents, relative instability, some struggling in school, and ultimately emerged with my aunt and uncle adopting me, stability, and better grades.
It was Mrs. Cain who pointed out to me that people in the world were striving to make the world a place with more opportunity for more folks.
The kind of job I have now was never part of my thought process growing up. In many ways, I credit Mrs. Cain. I am fortunate to travel the depth and breadth of the state of North Carolina to visit great schools, meet everyday heroes, and gain inspiration from remarkable students who will shape the future of our state.
Last week, I visited Martin Millennium Academy (MMA) in Edgecombe County. This was my second visit to MMA. The authentic and inspiring energy of the school is both contagious and real.
One of the bright spots of MMA is the way that the educators within the school connect the curriculum to current events and to the broader world. It is all part of the Global Schools curriculum.
Another bright spot is an emphasis on student leadership. MMA embraces the concept of student leaders who can bring about positive social change, creating a ripple effect by both building the next generation of civic leaders in Edgecombe County and sending those leaders out into the world.
I returned from the visit inspired and promptly hit the trails for a run to think about all I had learned. I thought of the education students at MMA are receiving in rural North Carolina combined with the advances in technology shaping their world. I found myself considering where my classmates and I might have ended up with the same investment.
Yet for all of the advantages of advances in curriculum and technology, it struck me as I hit mile two that much of what they are doing harkens back to the best teachers of my own past — such as Mrs. Cain, who pre-broadband and pre-tablets, connected the dots for me to the broader world.
This weekend I found myself scribbling down additional notes on other teachers who influenced and continue to influence my life.
Mrs. Cox was my English teacher on two separate occasions in high school. She was as tough as they come, yet I credit her for whatever writing skills I may have. She taught us to read difficult books, challenge our own ideas and notions, and embrace our imagination. She had us keep a dream journal and explore our unconscious. She even laughed when I made a comic strip of my final paper.
Mr. Spicer taught history and civics. He was the first teacher to inspire me to consider the role of public policy and government. He helped me understand Southern culture and history in ways that still resonate with me today. Last fall I had the opportunity to speak to one of his classes on storytelling, which speaks to his ability to remain connected to students long after they have graduated.
Our library staff inspired me to read even more broadly than ever before. While I sometimes wish I could send my Amazon.com bills to them, they were mentors and guides as I considered books outside of our curriculum.
And I even connected with teachers I never had. B.C. Crawford was a beloved English teacher in our school, yet I never had one of his classes. Last fall I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi, where he now lives, on a walking tour of the Faulker estate, Ole Miss, and the neighborhoods surrounding the college. Even this weekend, he texted me a recipe for a health drink.
The best teachers of my own life, just like the teachers at MMA and at other schools I have visited around the state, share much in common.
A love for their students.
A desire to introduce them to the broader world.
The ability to inspire, challenge, and connect even outside of the walls of the classroom.
We shouldn’t need a week to appreciate them, we should appreciate them daily.