Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 18, 2011

A Black History Month tribute to my African-American mentor

by Kevin Skelly

There are times when I talk with my children about "when I grew up," and they are incredulous. For example, they can scarcely imagine a world without computers or a world in which the only phone one had was tethered to a wall.

They have the same reaction when I describe my days growing up in Southwest Virginia. Roanoke was one of the most segregated cities in the country in terms of housing patterns, and the schools were rigidly divided by race. While Brown vs. Board of Education became the law of the land in 1954, the schools in Roanoke were not integrated until 1970, when I was in fifth grade. Integration created an environment wherein I was given life lessons and the inspiration to become an educator.

I remember the three buses filled with my new classmates coming down the hill to "my" elementary school. I remember being afraid, but I can only imagine how fearful it was for those on the bus. The staff, too, was thrust together and, while I don't know what the conversations were in the staff lounge, I felt that the adults were looking out for me and helping me make sense of this new reality.

When I went to junior high, I met John Harris, one of the most influential people in my life. As a math teacher, he single-handedly destroyed all the stereotypes my friends and I had developed in our bigoted, white world. He was the hardest working, smartest, most caring and involved teacher in the school. After winning Teacher of the Year for multiple years, the administration instituted a rule that no teacher could win the award in consecutive years. Between classes the halls were clogged as students tried to get some acknowledgement from him as he went by.

Mr. Harris also coached the seventh/eighth grade basketball team. Even though I scored exactly four points on his basketball team, I would have run through a wall for Mr. Harris, and so would have all of my friends. I am quite sure I would not have played basketball in high school, nor would I have become a math teacher myself, were it not for him.

But he wasn't alone. There were other teachers, black and white, who, despite the fits and starts, made the experience better for all students. There is something hopeful and optimistic in almost every educator, and it seemed they all brought this to the fore at Woodrow Wilson Junior High during those pivotal years in my life and in the history of our nation's grappling with segregation.

Americans place great hope in their public schools as an agent of societal improvement. One would be hard-pressed to find a social problem where schools are not called upon to be part of the solution. So it was, and is, with segregation and racism, and with the multiple social issues we face as a nation.

As I think about how I am a product of these experiences, I remember how, just a decade ago, I was talking to Mr. Harris and thanking him for what he did for me so many years ago. He smiled and said, "You don't have to thank me, you just have to go and do something for someone else." Good advice for all of us this month, I think.

Kevin Skelly is superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District.

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