When I was in school, I wasn’t the best student. It wasn’t because I was incapable of learning — I just had no interest in school. My parents, my mother especially, always sent me to the school where I was the only black student in class, or maybe there were one or two in the class. I had no relationships there.
I had to grow up trying to navigate a system where I was an outlier. I didn’t belong and that affected me academically because sometimes I didn’t think I was smart. I didn’t like to read, not because I couldn’t read — I could read. The books they were giving me, I had no interest in. I didn’t want to read that stuff. They didn’t care.
But then I got this book — I think I was in fifth grade. It was the biography of Muhammad Ali. A funny thing happened when I read that book: I think I remembered every word on every page.
That experience changed me a little bit. I still wasn’t a great student, but I had someone I could relate to, someone who made sense to me.
Fast-forward: I’m in college — grad school — and I write this paper about my family. It talked about how I had an aunt who would make us go to church on Sunday morning, but she was always cussing us out on the way to church. She called us all a bunch of names to get us out of that house. Then she’d be singing in the choir.
My professor just loved that paper and for some reason, out of the blue, she said, “Sean, you need to be a teacher.” It didn’t make sense — how are you going to read a paper and tell me I need to be a teacher? And she said, “No, there’s just something about you. I think you really need to be a teacher.”
Well, I graduated, and lo and behold, I started teaching 10th grade English and speech at Theodore Roosevelt High School [now closed] in the Bronx. First day on the job, I go in there and I’m excited. The kids take out their books. I was going to have the kids do a little reading aloud.
A couple of kids went first, and I got to this one kid, he said, “Um, I’m not reading.”
I said, “What do you mean, you’re not reading?”
“I’m not reading.”
So I’m confused now, because I went to a school where you couldn’t tell a teacher that. And here’s this young man telling me, “No. I’m not doing it.”
I don’t know what to do. If I back down, the rest of the kids will say, “I’m not reading.” But a young lady saved me and she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll read.” And she read, and someone else read.
One of the things about Theodore Roosevelt, the English department, we had our own little teacher’s lounge, and a lot of ideas were shared in there. So I went back to my colleagues afterwards and I spoke about this instance where the young man said he wasn’t going to read. One of the teachers said, “Well, don’t let that bother you. A lot of times when they say that, they can’t read.”
I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know he can’t read? He’s in 10th grade.” Sure enough, you do some research, you do some checking: He couldn’t read.
I started saying, “What kind of system are we in that you get to 10th grade, and you’re sitting in a classroom, and you really can’t read? Is this what I’m really cut out for?”
So I started to find ways of making my class more interesting. Being in the English department, I’d hear the other English teachers recite Shakespeare. So I said, I’m going to make my kids learn Marc Antony’s speech. We were reading “Julius Caesar.”
I thought, “That will give them some confidence.” So I go in and I say, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
The kids are looking at me. And I go on, and I go on. And they’re like, “What the heck is he talking about?” So I’m saying, “You’re going to learn this speech — and not only are you going to learn it, you’re going to memorize it. And you’re going to recite it.”
They gave me a hard time, but I stood fast with it. And one day, a young lady was there to give her speech, and one of the English teachers walked into the room as the one lady was standing up. She struggled through it — got some words, kept trying, and finally, she made it.
And the teacher stopped and said, “Mr. Davenport, you made your kids learn that speech?”
I said, “Yeah. Why?”
And he said, “I think that’s too hard for them.”
He walked out of the room, and the young lady looked at me and said, “What’s he trying to say? Is he trying to say I can’t do this?”
I said, “That’s exactly what he’s trying to say. They don’t think you can do it.”
That was the best teaching tool I ever had. I didn’t have to convince another student in my classroom to learn that speech — because someone who they thought cared about them, who was supposed to care about them, didn’t believe in them.
From then on, I never had another problem with any of my students learning something they were supposed to learn. They might not have all gotten A’s or B’s — but they no longer got D’s and F’s.
So when I come to work every day, and you see my teachers in their classrooms, the one thing I try to instill in them is that these kids matter. They matter to someone.
What I want my kids to get out of school is that they don’t have to be Barack Obama. They just have to be themselves, and if they are the best of who they are, then that’s all right with us.
Sean Davenport is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy For Learning And Social Change in Harlem. This is a lightly edited version of a story he shared at a Showcase Schools training event. As a Showcase school, Thurgood Marshall Academy welcomes educators from across the city to observe successful teaching practices.