A salute to public school teachers: Heroes who show up with courage every day

Educators truly show up for their students, no matter how under-resourced they are

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 27, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

 (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

Can we raise a glass for the teachers? Public school educators who rarely get the credit they deserve are changing the game every day. And as the tragic mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, reminds us, their bravery and resiliency need to be recognized every day. On Tuesday, an 18-year-old entered the school and shot and killed 19 students and two teachers. As we collectively mourn the loss of each victim — the latest in the ongoing health care crisis of gun violence in America — we still expect teachers across the country to show up to school the next day. Like the brave people they are, most do. 

I have been visiting schools for eight years to give speeches, teach writing workshops, donate copies of my books and other goods. And I am more and more impressed, every single year, with the teachers in the classrooms I visit. Even in a relatively normal week, when a horrific school shooting is not at the forefront of our conversation, teachers are still expected to work under incredible challenges. And yet still they are pulling up every day. 

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The first time I was approached to talk to high school kids, it came straight from a teacher, not the school. She sent me a direct message via a student named Leek-Leek's Instagram account, telling me how my essays on pop culture and social media (all two of them at that point) were some of the best writing she had ever read, extremely enjoyable and so easy to teach. I thought Leek-Leek was joking or his teacher was gassing me. I knew Leek-Leek very well, as I used to ball with his pops. I saw them daily in the neighborhood and they never mentioned my writing. But then Leek-Leek set up a FaceTime conversation with me and his teacher. She told me that he had been bragging to the class about me hanging with his family by the corner store, where we smoked Black and Milds and shared a bottle. This was true. 

Even in a relatively normal week, teachers are still expected to work under incredible challenges.

"The 400 block Robinson Street is the most official," he told the class. "Watkins from the block and we gotta study him!" 

The kids from the 400 block quickly agreed. (The rest denied.) 

Initially, I wanted to decline the visit. I didn't have a career at the time; there were no books, no pending deals, no column. My bank account was thinner than a runway model, and I often didn't know where my next paycheck was coming from. But the teacher told me she had never seen her students so inspired by a local writer. I didn't know what that would have felt like to me as a student, so I had to come in.

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The fact that as a kid I had never met a local writer was a part of the problem. There were some respected artists and writers in Baltimore, but either the schools never invited them in or they just never came. Was our school not good enough? Were we not good enough? Were we just bad kids? Those are the kinds of questions that bounced around my mind when I got older and found out that artists, politicians, and celebrities visited other schools. NFL football superstar turned R&B rapper turned most inspirational coach in college football history Deion Sanders visited my ninth grade class and gave me enough hope to make through four years of chaos in high school. But no writers. 

So I arrived at Leek-Leek's school, where another student was waiting to escort me to their classroom, a neatly organized room with pictures of Black leaders and luminaries like Malcolm X and Maya Angelou hanging above the clean square desks arranged in a circle, and about 15 students dancing to Tate Kobang on the spit-shined polished industrial tile floors. I caught eyes with the teacher and she clipped the music and held up her right hand. The dancing instantly stopped, kids rushed to their seats and fell silent — so silent you could hear a mouse peeing on cotton.

"Our guest Mr. Watkins is here," she said. "There will be more music during your first break after he leaves. Now, who wants granola?" 

Who wants granola? It's super dry, I thought, as most of the students raised their hands as the teacher circled the room, giving each child a healthy scoop. I watched the students enjoy delicious chunks of oats, dates, chocolate chips and seeds as they waited for their guest, a local author — well, a local writer, who had only published two essays about street stuff and social media jokes — to speak to them. Wow. 

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I went to school in the '90s, and it was hell. There were no rap music dance parties, no guest speakers from the neighborhood, no clean desks arranged in circles, and no granola. There was an abundance of chaos, non-relatable books, and teachers who hated us because we looked like our older brothers and sisters, whom they also hated. Don't get me wrong — we had some good teachers who wanted to make sure we were getting an education. But they also made it clear that they did not want to be our friends or eat with us, and they definitely did not want to listen to our music. 

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"Dwight Watkins!" my ninth grade English teacher yelled at me, her skin redder than a ripe strawberry, as I was in mid-joke with the girl next to me. "Why are you talking again? That's exactly why you'll be murdered in those projects across the street!" 

"What?" I laughed with a confused smirk. "Really?"

Other students in the class joined in, laughing even louder. The teacher shook her head, slammed her chalk onto her desk and stormed out of the room, dramatic like a sitcom character. The saddest part is that we were laughing more at her tone and the way she stormed out rather than the fact she told me I would die just because I was talking a little in class. That is the public school environment I came up in, where there was little room for positive reinforcement and no interest in the things I cared about, only test scores, let downs and verbal assault. 

I thought the teacher needed me, but I ended up feeling like I needed the students just as much.

So in Leek-Leek's class, I found a seat in the middle of the circle, gripped a handful of the most delicious granola I ever tasted and started talking to the kids about dreaming. No, I was not the writer I wanted to be — yet — but I had a clear path I felt I deserved to take, and that was all they needed to hear. The students chimed in, not only telling me what they wanted to be but how much they believed in me. In the beginning, I thought the teacher needed me, but I ended up feeling like I needed the students just as much. I've made these visits a priority ever since. 

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And over the last eight years I've learned a lot about the challenges educators work under. For starters, just how terribly underfunded our public schools are — by nearly $150 billion annually, according to The Century Foundation.

"Never before have we had rigorous, evidenced-based and concrete data showing exactly where and how much money we need to invest in order to give students a chance to succeed," said Mark Zuckerman, TCF president, "Our study's estimates provide policymakers at all levels a detailed roadmap to once and for all remedy our vast inequities in public education funding." 

While some of the threats to safety and to curriculum independence are the same across class lines, affluent schools do tend to have smaller classrooms, plenty of staff and teacher's aides to offer struggling children a little extra help, plus special visitors who work in career paths that are creative and cool and abundant technology including iPads and digitals boards that wrap the rooms — all the goodies young people need to compete. Those lucky students have every opportunity to make it, and that's why they normally do. Meanwhile, I've walked into an underfunded public school's bathroom and seen lumpy water splashing around in a hole in the floor below a wall where a broken-up urinal used to hang, the rancid smell of piss and expired creatures chasing me back into the hallway. And yet the students in that building were still learning. Their teachers were still showing up.

I've done events in public schools that had no heat in the winter — some of those days it was so cold I couldn't take off my wool hat and coat and neither could the students or teachers. They stayed bundled up, fighting the chill in the room to listen to me talk about writing. I've given the same speech in  rooms with no air conditioning in hot months, drenched in sweat, looking like I just played ten games of basketball.

The students in these schools almost never have books — I reach out to foundations or buy them myself before I come — but as a community we make it happen.

But when I talk to the teachers about all of this — the lack of books and technology, the basic things their students need to function that are always missing­­ — they never complain. They have every reason to — on top of the national stories that remind them their classrooms are a target both physically and existentially — but they don't. Many of them accept the horrible conditions that are the results of systemic underfunding and continue to do their job. They show up. And not just in the classroom. I bump into these teachers taking their students to restaurants, showing up for court dates, mingling at concerts and community block parties, at baby showers and on the basketball court. They are more present and effective in the neighborhoods they serve than politicians and police, while still being underpaid and under attack. I think we all know who has earned the budget increases — and the right to be called heroes. 

Read Salon's recent investigation into the right's war on public schools: 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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