How Educators Can Change A Child’s Life

I learned to play chess when I was ten years old. It changed my life in unimaginable ways. Salome Thomas-El was my chess coach at Vaux Middle School. He taught me how to take the fundamental principles of chess and apply them to real life.

Thomas-El was one of many educators from Vaux Middle School and University City High School who chose to stay in inner city schools, and laid it all on the line for their students. I need to take this time to recognize Ms. Florence Johnson, Ethelyn Young, Octavia Lewis, Salome Thomas-El and many others from Vaux Middle School; Dr. Karl Janowitz and Debbie Matthews from University City High School.

These are teachers who believed that a young Black boy growing up in North and West Philadelphia could overcome his circumstances with a little love.

These are the people I owe my career to. They are educators who dared young poverty-stricken children to dream. Ms. Matthews taught me trigonometry, but she also taught me what the “real world” was like. I remember Ms. Johnson, who used to always tell me I was “smart” in her Boston accent. There was no doubt in her mind that I would be a star. And because of Ms. Johnson’s reassurance, there was never any doubt in mine.

I made a commitment, at a very young age, that if I was fortunate enough to overcome my circumstances, I would spend the rest of my life ensuring that others could do the same.

Statistics and research would tell you that I’m not supposed to be an attorney. But my teachers never believed those numbers. I grew up in some of the toughest parts of North and West Philadelphia. While my father was a small-time drug dealer, my mother spent most of my life struggling with drug-addiction. I have fourteen siblings, while my mother and father never married.

I was a kid who had very little support from my family, educationally or otherwise. I know what it’s like to live in public housing. I knew about drugs, violence, and how to get a gun. I have a number of friends who have been murdered. Where I was from, it was a way of life. If you were a betting man, you would not have been betting on my success.

But today I stand before you as an attorney-at-law. I became the first in my family to graduate college and law school. With hard work, determination and sacrifice, I beat the odds and the poverty.

And I understand that my success was all made possible by a few good teachers. Teachers who saw promise in a young man many people would have written off. I vowed to repay them by providing the same hope, the same inspiration, and the same opportunities to people who need it the most.

After law school, I could have done anything I wanted to do. But my wife and I chose to move back into the community and be an example from within. We bought a home in Strawberry Mansion when our friends told us we were crazy. And when I came back, I got right to work. We organized block cleanups, town watch, tutored and mentored the neighborhood kids, and exposed the neighborhood to things they have never seen before. Things like lawyers living next door to them. Picture this: young kids in Strawberry Mansion are now aspiring to be lawyers and police officers.

So, I just wanted to take this time to say thank you to all of my teachers who gave their careers so that I can be a success. Because of them, I have dedicated my life to lifting people out of poverty. Because of them, I know that we need to invest in our children, educate them, and encourage them if we are really serious about raising people out of poverty.

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