This week I learned about the passing of my mentor from UCLA. Mark Sawyer was a brilliant scholar and did something that is very rare in academia–he supported his students. I remember receiving a text from him once where he said, “I have my people’s back, and you’re my people.” He sent similar texts over the years including one of my favorites to this day: “let’s start that Afro-Latino charter school!” or, in reference to my penchant for a particular preppy brand, “I don’t hang with the Crew like that” and then proceeded to rattle off designer brands that I had no idea regular people had access to. He believed in me and understood my passion and while I have not lived up to that expectation all the time, having that support has meant everything to me.
I realize over the years I have been very fortunate to receive this kind of support from many teachers, advisors, and family and friends. In many ways, I think that’s really what has differentiated me from other students, and as an adult–I had enough people vocalize their belief in me enough times that I have actually believed them. I remember being told in the sixth grade that I could go to whatever college I wanted to go to. When it was time to meet with my high school counselor, he told me the same thing every time I met with him. Teachers actually took the time to call home when they thought I wasn’t doing my best. As a teacher, I know that is rare stuff so as often as I can, I look students in the eye and say, “I’m proud of you” or “Is this something you really want to have your name on?” or “I can’t wait to see the next awesome thing you are going to do.” It’s my version of “you’re my people” and something I am even more committed to saying now.
Mark’s passing occurred during a week of heightened cheerleading on my part with rejection and acceptance letters coming in. It’s been tough because there are students who did not get into their dream school and I know the tremendous effort they put into those applications. There is a goal but the process is almost as important. Then I met a student, a new client, who reminded me what this is all about.
This student attended three different high schools in three years and found himself floundering during the tenth grade. I was mentally counting the number of Ds and Fs when I heard him say, “I’m going directly to a four-year college.”
“It’s going to take a lot of work,” I said. “I mean, the next six months are going to be a bit nuts. You have a major hurdle to overcome and it’s called ‘The 10th Grade’.”
“He’s resilient,” his mother said. “I want to tell you what he did but it’s hard to do without crying.”
She told me anyway. She told me how he tried out for the basketball team at the high school, but didn’t make the team. He continued to show up every day for practice though. Every day. At 5:30 in the morning. He didn’t tell his parents that he didn’t make the team, and when they asked, he said, “I’m taking care of it.” Most days when he arrived, the head coach said he didn’t have to be there. But he arrived each morning, did drills, and worked out with the team. He even suited up each game day and sat with the team to cheer them on.
I had to interrupt at this point. “Wait, wait…You didn’t make the team though?” When his mother nodded and he continued looking at his hands in his lap, I asked, “But I thought you said you were captain.”
His mother nodded again and proceeded to tell me that he is now and only because he kept showing up. After six weeks (yes, six weeks) someone lost his spot and the team was in need of a player. The assistant coaches looked to the player who worked out the hardest and was the most dedicated, the player who showed up more than the others. The one who wasn’t even on the team. They put him on the team and named him the captain. The captain! At a banquet, his coach said he would tell this story of resilience every year until the end of his career.
By this time, I was nearly all packed up. “I thought I had to convince you to get things moving, “ I said as I took my glasses off and put them in their case. “But clearly, I’m the one who needed convincing.”
“I’m going directly to a four-year college,” he repeated.
“Oh, I see you, captain. I see you.” I responded. “And I’ll see you again on Sunday for test prep.”
So for all of the would-be professors and budding scholars, for Mark Sawyer and the other mentors who have your back but you need a quick reminder: I see you. I have my people’s back and you’re my people.