It gives me tremendous pleasure to speak to you this morning. As the dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, I am both humbled and honored to serve in such an auspicious role. My entire professional life has been dedicated to the education and well-being of young people. I believe that being a counselor is a calling. It is more than a vocation, but an avocation “ a desired passion that enables you to serve our nation's most precious resource: our children and young people." I had such passion for teaching at an early age.
Please allow me to introduce myself through what I call my learning autobiography. My hope is that from my journey, you may glean some additional insight toward the power of your influence as a counselor. As I tell my story, I want to emphasize Glenn Singleton's Four Agreement that can be found in his book Courageous Conversations. The four agreements are Speak Your Truth, Experience Discomfort, Expect and Accept Lack of Closure, and Stay Engaged.
Speak Your Truth:
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and one of the spiritual traditions of my faith is testimony. When you testify, you speak your truths in order to connect more viscerally with the Lord and to seek guidance in your daily life. You discuss your trials and tribulations and by disclosing these personal truths, you free yourself of these earthly shackles and through faith you give of yourself completely.
Today, as I tell my story, I hope to give myself completely so that you as counselors can learn from my testimony in order to better guide and support your students.
I grew up in the early 60s in South Carolina as the youngest of six children in a devout Southern Baptist family. My mother and father were not high school graduates; therefore, they had jobs with meager wages. They made a little go far and we wanted for nothing. We never considered ourselves poor. I once asked Mom how much she and Dad made when all eight of us lived together, and she said about $11,000.
Even though my parents did not graduate from high school, they valued education. My dad, with only an eighth-grade education, enjoyed reading. Nightly, he would read from the Bible and the local newspaper. Being the treasurer of his Masonic lodge, as well as a carpenter, brick mason and maintenance mechanic by trade, he had many functional mathematical skills.
Mom had an 11th-grade education. When Dad returned from World War II at age 28, he met Mom, who was 17. They fell in love, and Mom immediately dropped out of school and got married, which was customary for women of that era. Mom later returned to night school after I, as the youngest, entered school; and she proudly received her high school diploma. She was quick to caution others that it was a diploma and not a GED. Due to my momâ€™s desire to graduate from high school, she had the explicit expectation that all of her children would graduate from high school. Her other desire was that we would all be baptized. All six children accomplished both!
Experience the Discomfort: Part I
I share this family history because imbedded in this story is the genesis of my desire to value education and become a teacher. I was a voracious learner and reader but had limited access to print besides the Bible, a book of Bible stories and varied volumes of the Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia that Mom bought from the A&P grocery store. I had limited access to reading materials because during the time when I grew up, I could not attend the public library.
I grew up in the segregated South. I went to an all-black elementary school. I lived in an all-black neighborhood. I went to an all-black church. This segregation made a lasting impression on my formative years. When I went to middle school in 1973, almost 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, I entered my first classroom with white students.
But before that, I did have a white teacher for the first time in fourth grade. This was when the school district phased in integration by switching teachers from the black schools with some of those from the white schools. My first white teacher was Mrs. Dodd. She focused on me as a learner and provided me and my classmates access to knowledge outside of the scope of our black community. She took us across the railroad tracks on walking field trips through the white community. I was able for the first time to access the public library, although I could not check out books. Mrs. Ivey, my second white educator, was the librarian. She quickly identified my love of reading and encouraged me to come to the back of the library during non-peak hours to select books and to read them at a study cariole in the basement of the library.
These two white educators possessed what today is codified as cultural competency. They were able to build a relationship with me, and through this relationship, they assisted me in my own literacy emancipation and provided me access to materials that were not available to my family.
Mrs. Dodd was also the first teacher that identified my physical needs. She recognized that I was extremely overweight for a kid my age and she encouraged my mom to take me to a doctor to help me with my weight. She also noticed that I had to sit in the front of the classroom if I wanted to read the chalkboard. She sent me for an eye exam referral and I was able to receive free glasses through this program. Through the encouragement, guidance, and support of these two teachers/counselors I was able to navigate elementary school and gain access to knowledge. Lisa Delpit in her both Other People's Children shared how it is necessary to teach the disenfranchised the functional, navigational tools so that they can access power. I think about this line often when I reflect on my educational upbringing.
Experience Discomfort: Part II
While at the segregated black school, I was one of the three smartest students in the school. I always received Aâ€™s in all subjects and had excellent conduct reports. When I was bussed for 10 miles to the white school, I noticed that I was in classes with mostly black students. I also noticed, especially in math, that I was doing what I considered easy work. I finished my work quickly and began to goof off and get in trouble. Once on the playground another student teased me because he said I was in basic math. I did not know what that meant so I asked my mother. She did not know, but took the time to come to school to find out. From that interaction with my teachers, some realized that I was too smart for their classes. My English teacher, who taught at the basic level, placed me in another level of English called advanced English, which was one step above regular but one step below honors. I often wondered what would have been my educational journey if my mother did not visit my school. As counselors, you may often have to act in loco parentis in order to support students whose parents lack knowledge of school proceedings and may feel uncomfortable visiting schools to talk to teachers.
I later learned that when students came from my elementary school to integrate the white middle school, they were automatically placed in the lower-level classes by misinformed guidance counselors. I guess they assumed because our school was in the black community and the poorest part of town, we were not very smart. With the help of good teachers and an inquisitive parent, I made it out of those classrooms.
Experience the Discomfort: Part III
I was placed in honors social studies with Mr. Scobee, another white teacher. He too possessed cultural competency. He taught me the importance of relevance. His favorite question was "What does this piece of history mean to you?" He taught us how to take historical events and place them in a comparative context across different cultures and races. I remember him teaching about Westward expansion and talking about black pioneers and the Chinese contribution with the railroads. He also talked about the Great Migration, which was the movement of blacks to the North who were searching for better jobs and more integrated opportunities. Mr. Scobee was also great at parent relationships and would often assign us to ask our parents and grandparents about history. He would give us a historical event and we would have to find out how members of our family reacted to these events, such as the death of President Kennedy or the first time our parents or grandparents voted in a presidential election. These activities allowed us to value our family's histories and to bring forth authentic accounts that were not found in the history books.
When I was placed in the honors classes, I was one of a few blacks in my class and the only black from my neighborhood. When I would ride the bus home in the afternoons, many of my neighborhood peers would question if I was even in school. Later when they found out I was in the honors classes, they began to tease me about trying to act white, and they said I thought I was not good enough for them. The teasing got so intense that I decided to stop riding the bus and to walk or ride my bike the 10 miles to and from school. This continued throughout high school and I felt as if I was living in two different worlds. In high school, all of my friends were white, but at home in the neighborhood, everyone was black. The white school friends and I did not interact with one another outside of school. It was still uncommon in the late 70s for black and white teenagers to co-mingle in places besides school.
Needless to say, this was a difficult time for me. I was doing quite well in school, but I was losing my identity within my neighborhood. I felt like a race traitor because all of the elders in the community were telling me to excel and to do well in school so I could leave this place and make a better life. I really loved my community, but it seemed as if I was being forced out of it. I learned in school how to navigate the dominant culture because I was given the tools of access, but felt that my education drove a wedge between me and my community.
What I needed was another culturally competent teacher who could have shown me how to embrace these dominant culture access traits and to situate them in the black community.
Experience the Discomfort: Part IV
At the ages of 17, my three older brothers got their girlfriends pregnant and based on our Baptist beliefs, they were told by my dad that they had to get married. It was not uncommon in my early 70s community to be dating at the age of 12 and sexually active at 15. Although, I had these virile role models in my brothers, I did not feel attractive to the opposite sex. At the time gay was not a word that I knew. I knew the words faggot, punk, sissy, queer and other more offensive terms and I knew by the harsh treatment of those that were viewed as such that I did not want to be identified with this group. So instead of dating, I read. Instead of socializing, I read. In an effort to hide my identity, I studied, got good grades, and simply tried to stay under the radar. Because I was an overweight kid, my parents and others assumed that I probably was not dating because girls found me unattractive. I remember consciously using my weight as a beard to disguise my heterosexual inactivity.
Expect and Accept Lack of Closure
Unfortunately, there were no teachers or counselors who could assist me in my sexual orientation journey. I realized that in order to navigate the hetero-normative world, I had to pretend, isolate, and distract. I pretended to be straight by talking falsely about girls with much libidinous bravado. I isolated myself from others and concentrated on my studies. I distracted my parents and teachers by being a model achiever academically, spiritually, and altruistically. I did well in school, I went to church and participated in youth programs, and I gave back by tutoring young children and assisting the elderly. I did not realize this at the time, but I was simply accepting non-closure. I knew that the environment that I lived in was not ready for me as an actualized gay person, so I had to accentuate other more accepting aspects of my person. This lack of closure propelled me to become adroit at social navigation, but not necessarily social connectivity.
The teachers and counselors for today's children must possess culturally, linguistically, developmentally, and technologically competence and confidence.
I stay engaged because my life has been created based on other people who fought for the privileges I have, the privileges I have that enabled me to become a teacher, professor, and dean.
I stay engaged because when I look at some of the limitations that others have experienced, I'm conscious of the fact that other people chose for me, to put their lives and their privileges on the line, and I have an obligation to give back as well.
I stay engaged because I really have a strong, negative reaction to prejudice, discrimination, hatred and violence, anything that tries to delegitimize or marginalize any of our fellow human beings is a travesty to my fundamental beliefs and values. I strongly believe in equity, inclusivity diversity, and social justice.
As counselors, I hope you stay engaged because every day as a counselor is an exercise in social justice. Social justice for pre-K through 12 teachers and counselors is combining academic excellence with broad access, promoting diversity and meeting the special needs of underserved populations. All students may not go to college, but if they do not go, it should be due to choice, not inability or access issues.
I don't believe in settling down. The term implies that the current path I am on isn't valid. As I navigate my life and reflect on my journey, I realized that it is not always about living your life the way people have lived before you. It is about cultivating the experiences in your life, learning from them and sharing them with others. I am perpetually awaiting a renaissance of wonder. I am waiting for a time when imagination takes over this planet. As counselors of today's youth, I know you must be wise, discerning, imaginative and full of wonder. You must be because all of our nation's children deserve counselors with these attributes. As you reflect on your professional journey, I want you to renew your pledge of being a counselor and remember that overweight, poor, black, gay kids, like myself, and countless others depend on you to speak your truth, experience the discomfort, accept non-closure, and stay engaged so that they can be college, career, and citizenship ready.
I wholeheartedly applaud your contributions to this grand profession and all that you do for the children and young people for the State of Iowa. Thank you for your time.