Years before Robin Williams took to his desk in Dead Poets Society to urge his students to “look at the world in a different way,” LaVerna Davis took a step from her chair to the top of an old wooden desk at Randleman Middle School.
It was not a moment without some anxiety.
“Lucky,” as she was known to everyone in the community, was closer to retirement than to the start of her career, and the thick, black-soled shoes she was wearing did not appear to offer much in the way of support or stability.
But she climbed up gracefully and without a word, like there was nothing out of the ordinary about a grandmotherly figure in a small town standing on a desk to teach to a group of awkward adolescents.
Though there was some worry about how she would make it up there — and even more so make it down — none of us in the classroom that day were surprised. We had heard stories about Lucky and her unusual teaching methods.
We knew what we were getting into. Lucky was a legend.
Throughout my public school education there were teachers and administrators along they way who encouraged and inspired me.
Throughout my public school education there were teachers and administrators along the way who encouraged and inspired me. Who saw something in a very average student to take the time to engage and nurture my natural curiosity. To take the time and make the effort to find whatever it was that might spark a dormant passion for learning.
There was Ms. Overton in the second grade at Farmer Elementary who, after having grown tired of me staring out the window during class, asked me one day what I was interested in.
I told her space.
A few days later she came to school with a book on astronauts, handed it to me in a way that said, “Ok, let’s learn.”
There was also the speech therapist at Farmer, Ms. Stephanakos, a native of Poland whose parents escaped the communist take over, who called me her “little genius.” She was an incredible woman. And even though I would see her for speech therapy, she always took the time at the start of our session to ask me about current events and answer any questions I had about her experience growing up in Eastern Europe.
She was the type of person who knew a shy kid with a speech impediment and a learning disability probably needed to be reminded that there was a little bit of a genius in all of us.
And though I am sure I was no more intelligent than any of her other students, she was the type of person who knew a shy kid with a speech impediment and a learning disability probably needed to be reminded that there was a little bit of a genius in all of us.
And though Lucky Davis had a warmth and compassion that would draw you into the orbit of her oversized personality, she was not one to let any student slide by in her class.
I vividly remember the last days of the school year, she sitting me aside in her office, having reached her limit with my sloppy handwriting, making me sit and practice over and over again on elementary school primary paper, making my letters bigger, clearer, and more legible.
The lesson was clear:
If you are going to do something, do it right and take pride in it.
And even though my handwriting today is still more chicken scratch than calligraphy, I am grateful Lucky took the time to teach me that lesson. I still think about her often, usually in the smallest of moments, like when I am in a hurry and think it’s ok to hit send on a poorly worded email.
If you are going to do something, do it right and take pride in it.
Years later, at Randleman High School, it was Ms. Mylan, a teacher who radiated excitement for literature and who made us memorize the first twenty lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
We were required to repeat it over and over again in class in that incomprehensible Old English.
Sometimes it’s not until you internalize it that something so foreign can become beautiful and soothing.
At the time, it seemed tortuous, but really it was a lesson that sometimes it’s not until you internalize it that something so foreign can become beautiful and soothing. I still find myself today absent-mindedly muttering those lines. And though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was my first lesson in phonaesthetics.
The list goes on and on. There was Mr. Turner who made history come alive and would hold a class of restless, small-town youth captivated when he gave his first-hand account of a firefight in Vietnam.
And Mr. Dorsett, who, despite the fact I was barely hanging on by the skin of my teeth in his Spanish class, took the time to engage me as a student, and who, for some unknown reason, decided I needed to represent the school as part of our Quiz Bowl Team.
I was a little out of my element, to say the least, the only kid on the team who had done a residency in summer school.
In hindsight, I realize I was the type of disengaged, disinterested student who would drive teachers crazy. And I’m sure I did.
But I am also equally sure they never stopped trying to teach me, to help me see there was something bigger than my own narrow worldview or let me settle for “ok” when they knew I could do better.
You see, even though I gave up on the system, the system never gave up on me.
And it wasn’t until years later, at Randolph Community College, one of those institutions of second chances that are so invaluable to our state, when everything clicked and I realized the foundation was being patiently laid for all those years.
I am a product of this state’s system of public education through and through; from secondary to postsecondary, I was given second chances again and again, and, in the end, I hope I was worth their effort.
I do not tell you all this to show my “public-school kid” card, but rather to express gratitude to be a part of this conversation, to be working with EdNC for a more inclusive discussion about public education in this state. Because whether you are a native or new resident, a parent or not, we all have a stake in, and benefit from, the quality of education available to our state’s children.
You don’t need a crystal ball to see what the future of this state looks like. Just take a look at the kindergarten class at your local elementary school, or, better yet, at a school outside your neighborhood.
I bet it doesn’t look like your own kindergarten class, and that is a good thing.
The children in those classes are going to be our caregivers in old age, the business leaders that envision our state’s next generation of jobs, the engineers that build our bridges, the future policymakers who will lead us.
Our obligation to them is to not shy away from the tough questions and decisions about education in the here and now, or to let the small differences in political viewpoints dominate our collective conversation today.
I am grateful to be a part of EducationNC, and I am humbled by the effort of the many educators who never gave up on me and who helped get me here.
So, that’s my story. I can’t wait to hear yours.