Summer 2014. I left the blistering heat of the Mississippi Delta. That past January, I interviewed at Achievement First Brooklyn High. The prospect of being developed as a teacher and moving closer to my family drove my decision to leave Mississippi. Well that, and the unfortunate truth that being a lesbian in the heart of the deep south was not a lifestyle that I could see for myself.
1485 Pacific is breathtaking. Nestled in Brooklyn right between Crown Heights and Bedstuy, the Manhattan skyline is visible from all the western facing windows. Up until the day I left, I would stare out the windows to put the world in perspective. The southeast side of the building overlooks Brooklyn and lets in the warmth of the day. Born and raised in sunny California, there was truly not a bad seat in the house.
The view of the Manhattan skyline from AFBHS
In July of 2014, I drove up to 1485 and was greeted by the director of school operations, Colin. Colin, famous for the slogan "it's gonna be great", has a positive attitude that could conquer even the trickiest of situations. He helped me unload the car filled with the posters I created in my first three years of teaching, containers of markers (because every supply in Mississippi was sacred), and bins of science supplies I had purchased over the past three years.
Can you spot the posters I took to Brooklyn from Mississippi?
As we rode the elevator up to the 5th floor to room 518, Colin explained to me that my classroom had some interesting pros and cons. While it was the largest room in the school, it was also a very odd shape. We rounded the corner pushing all of my school supplies stacked on a rolling chair and Colin opened up the lab. Immediately my stomach dropped.
Out of the entire building this was one of two rooms without windows, or any glimmer of natural light.
Every day that year I spent exactly 212 minutes a day in room 518. Four classes. 53 minutes each.
Every moment I was not teaching I spent in room 515 with an individual that would change the trajectory of my life: Althea Hoard.
Althea is unwaivering in her beliefs.
I would sit at the round table at the back of Althea's class and watch her teach, while writing lesson plans and grading papers.
Althea was Science Department Chair and concurrently working on her PhD at Columbia. I had expressed my own interest in going back to school for a Master's degree. In January, Althea looked me and said that if I was going to be true to myself I needed to "follow my passion and walk in my purpose".
I applied to Columbia the next week.
In the spring of 2016, Althea ran a book club with our Science Department where we discussed teaching science and Black feminism. We read Patricia Collins, and analyzed our individual stories as educators, and how we operated within our school.
Althea shook me awake that spring. She made me more aware of my own positionality, and fueled my purpose in education. She pushed me to see the value of my past experiences, and to speak out about my ideas in school wide conversations.
At the close of the school year, Althea took the position of STEM Dean. That fall, I moved to 515. Althea's old room. With a reinvigorated drive for social justice and gearing up to start my master's degree, I hoped to inspire others the same way the room's previous occupant had inspired me.
In Mississippi, I compartmentalized my identity, telling myself that my sexual orientation had nothing to do with teaching high school. Moving to Brooklyn and coming out to my students, made me quickly realize the importance of being true to myself.
I was in my own skin. Staff members knew more about who I was and students were comfortable coming out to me. They saw me as an example of, as one of students this year recently shared in a GSA meeting, a "fully grown gay person". Granted, the path to being out at work was complicated and difficult, it was worth it.
This past year, I changed classrooms to room 504. Hanging up the decorations for a final time I looked over the complete collection.
504 still contained posters I took out of the car that hot July and moved into a sunless lab. However, over the past seven years my classroom has grown into a mosaic of images meant to empower others in the way that Althea empowered me, to walk in my purpose, and to be unapologetically myself.
Our class big goals are posted at the front of the room all year.
Goal #1: Scholars will be thinkers, analyzers, problem solvers, and world changers.
Goal #2: 100% of scholars will pass the NY State Regents.
The windows of 504 look out over Brooklyn. Along the wall are statistics from the Ivy League Schools and Top Ten Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The first day of school students filled out superhero cards with their powers.
The back wall is filled with student work and pictures of the AFBHS scientists. Above the back wall are mini posters of famous People of Color in STEM.
Near my desk I have a collection of images that define me. Hockey, my family, and of course, food.
My door is covered with print outs of scientific discoveries reminding students that they will be the ones to shape the future.
Is there someone at work that changed your life? Other educators, what inspired how you designed your classroom?
I would love to hear your story in the comments below!