First Person

When My School Failed, Nelson Mandela Re-Inspired Me

Jeniffer Montano, who graduated from Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School in 2009(?), met Nelson Mandela in South Africa after winning a writing contest sponsored by the Mandela Foundation in partnership with the Department of Education.
Jeniffer Montano, who graduated from Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School in 2009, met Nelson Mandela in South Africa after winning a writing contest sponsored by the Mandela Foundation in partnership with the Department of Education.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide, GothamSchools is collecting tales from New York City schools about the former president of South Africa. Jeniffer Montano met Mandela in South Africa in 2009 when she attended Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School.

Since I was a little girl, I have always had a desire to change the world. I wasn’t sure how, but I just knew I wanted to leave this world a bit better than it was before I entered it. I idolized people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. These people dedicated their lives to helping others.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Schools are the primary source of education. Teachers and staff are the ones that dispense this powerful weapon. So, what happens when kids like me learn to define education by the metal detectors they must walk through to enter school, or by the teachers who do not care or by the guidance counselor who tells them to drop out because they are not “school material”? If education is one of the most powerful weapons in the world, then the type of education I received is closing the door to change. It is destroying potential leaders and reformers. It is breaking down and destroying our future Nelson Mandelas.

I live in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx where violence and drugs are a part of daily life. I live in a place where hopelessness fills the hearts of most, and our schools are a reflection of this.  My dreams of changing the world were slowly shattered as I moved through the public school system.  By the time I got to Dewitt Clinton High School I had completely lost sight of my dream. I looked around me and started to understand the message that was being sent. You are nobody and therefore you will forever be nobody.

By the time I got to my junior year I had completely given up. My average was about a 55.8 and I had been absent for two months straight without anyone noticing. I was ready to drop out. Before I made my decision I went to my guidance counselor. I was hoping to find words of encouragement and motivation. Instead, I was told to drop out and get my GED. The guidance counselor said that I just wasn’t made for school.

I was now set on proving him wrong. How dare he tell me that I was the problem? How dare he tell me that I couldn’t make it?  I would make it! I would be someone! And he would have to eat his words.

I decided to transfer to another school, Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School. Once I found myself in a nurturing environment, everything changed. Before I had been told I wasn’t school material, and now I was now an honor roll student. However, while I was striving academically, surviving school took up so much of me that I had completely forgotten about my dream. Then one day my mom told me about a writing contest.  My first reaction was, ‘No way, I will never win,’ but Mom persisted until she finally convinced me to submit a piece. On March 27, 2009, I uploaded my thirteen-page essay and submitted it to the Nelson Mandela Legacy Contest.

When I got the call a month later that I was one of 12 winners, I was shocked. A few weeks later I found myself on a plane headed to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela — that trip would change my life forever.

It was a cool June day and I was standing in front of a wooden door frame waiting to be called into the room. As I entered the room I was blinded by flashing lights. Photographs and videos were being taken of me as I walked toward this majestic-looking being who was sitting on the other side of the room. I made my way over to him and sat down next to him. He extended his hand and I shook it. As my hand touched his, my stomach jumped and goose-bumps over took my body. I was in awe.

He then asked me in a gentle voice, “What is your name?”

“Jeniffer Montano,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Jeniffer Montano,” he replied.

I was speechless. All I could do was stare at him and try to hold back the tears. Nelson Mandela had just said my name. Nelson Mandela, the man who most of us only read about in our textbooks. Nelson Mandela, the man who gave his life and freedom to free a nation. Nelson Mandela, the man, the leader, the hero, had, for a brief moment, acknowledged me. That simple handshake changed my whole life. If I could do something worthy enough to be placed in front of Mandela, then surely I could achieve anything.

This was when my dream came back into focus. I thought about how I was going to change the world and then it hit me — education. Education truly is a powerful weapon. I almost didn’t make it because I saw no hope in education. After my trip to South Africa I decided to dedicate my life to helping kids find and build their dreams through a good education. I decided to pursue a career in teaching.

I am currently attending the City College of New York, where I am pursuing a degree in secondary education. I want to become an English teacher.  I want to use my degree to help assure that all our future leaders understand that no matter where they are from, they can make it. I want to assure them that no one ever thinks that there is no way out. I want to assure that no kid ever has to hear that they are the problem, that they are not school material. I want assure that education is truly held up and acknowledged as one of the most “powerful weapons” in the world. For so long I was lost, I was unable to find my way, and I was unable to give my dream a platform. But a simple handshake changed that. I want to do for others what that handshake did for me: help them keep hope alive and help them see the greatness in themselves.

Thank you, Madiba.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.