Stand Up & Speak Out

…a reflection offered at Malvern’s MLK Jr. Banquet by Stacey James McAdoo…

Pen and ink with color pencil entitled “Standing Strong and Forever” by Leron McAdoo

The discovery of Maya Angelou’s poem Equality changed the trajectory of my life. I was in the 10th grade, at Hall High School, in Ms. Milloway’s Speech Communications class when it happened. And I remember it as clear as day. The task was a recitation of a piece of poetry for an oral interpretation assignment. I coped an attitude not only because I did not want to present in front of the class, but also because I had absolutely no interest in reading poetry. At that time in my life, poetry seemed like some abstract, pie in the sky, brown-cow-how, thing that didn’t offer any relevance to my life. All the poetry I had read up until this time was from a cannon of mostly dead white men or nursery rhymes. How on earth could I, a Black know-it-all adolescent from the wrong side of town who liked the chip on her shoulder, get down with that? Begrudgingly complying with Ms. Milloway’s suggestion, I checked out Maya Angelou’s book I Shall Not Be Moved. Upon opening it and reading the poetry, the words began to speak to me in a voice that I knew intimately from deep down inside my soul. That was the first time I remember encountering language that looked like and sounded like me in an academic setting. And I’ve yet to remain the same.

Ms. Milloway’s impact serves as an example as to why the humanities…the arts…and elective classes are so important. I remind people all the time that my love of language and history wasn’t sparked in an English or history class. Most of my understanding of the world and the history of our country has been because of great contemporary living poets of color, such as Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Sonia Sanchez. In consuming their works, I would often stumble upon references to people, places, or historical/current events that I was unfamiliar with and had not been taught about in school. These findings would cause me to annotate the poem, research, and want to read more about that topic. Nikki Giovanni’s But Since You Finally Asked, Reflections on April 4, a1968 and How Could I Live On are perfect examples of this. I credit her for teaching me about Juneteenth, the impact of Dr. King’s death to the Black community, Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s wife), and many power players of the Black Arts & Civil Rights Movements. Her analysis of contemporary history, people, and current events fed my curiosity and often confirmed what I intuitively knew about mainstream media and textbooks I read in school: they often simply didn’t get it or understand me. 

Although I am a proud graduate of Hall High School, I am an educator at one of the most infamous high schools in America: Little Rock Central High. Central is a school known for the bravery of nine African American children and their courageous mentors’ ability to stand out and speak up. Every day that I walk through the halls, I am thankful for their sacrifice and courage. But not just theirs, also Dr. King’s. It is very fitting that we are here today celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who attended the graduation of LRCH’s first Black graduate – Earnest Green).

My first recollection of Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations came by way of the radio — Power 92.3 to be specific. For years, Power 92 Jams has played a mix featuring a portion of Dr. King’s famous ‘Drum Major’ speech laid on top of Force MD’s ‘Tender Love’ track. The ‘Tender Love’ track is hot all by itself but laced with the melodic crescendo of King’s powerful words it becomes fire! And it doesn’t matter how many times I hear this track, each time it gets to the part where he prophetically says, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead…But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” tears well in the corners of my eyes. His courage to stand up and speak out …not in spite of but probably because of …his obligations to his family, his children and his convictions were…is…revolutionary. 

Last year I was propelled into the spotlight mainly because of the accolades and accomplishments of my LRCH students and Writeous family. For the last seventeen years, I have been the wind beneath them, helping to push them to stand up and speak out about their truths. And they’ve done it so well – so passionately and so unapologetically – that the wind shifted and now the light is on me. This light, while flattering and exciting, honestly feels a little weird. Nothing about me has changed, and now all of a sudden, there are requests to hear my thoughts. So when I got the call to come here today, I asked Ms. James if she was sure she wanted me because I don’t consider myself a motivational speaker. I don’t have a big personality, I am not very charismatic, and I’m an introvert by nature. I’m slow to engage and prefer to stand up and speak out in intimate settings where there’s an authentic, meaningful exchange of dialogue. The most revolutionary way that I know how to stand up and speak out to impact and change the system is through teaching. And so, I’ll close with my signature teacher of the year piece. I’m no King, but I stand up and speak out every day for my students because I Teach.

I Teach
(a teacher of the year tribute piece)
written by Stacey & Leron McAdoo
© 1/15/2019

I teach
I give vision beyond sight
Introduce open-eyed ambition 
To contacts
I focus pupils
Nothing is out of view 
Of the telescope of a child
You can never tell ... a scope ... of a child

Security scans for weapons
But there's no chirp for hurt
Or bing for low esteem
So I concentrate on lift ups 
Instead of lockdowns

Because the classroom should not be 
Where dreams go to die
Where you cram to death
Until they kill your spirit
And bury your hope
To meet a deadline

Youth may be 15% of society today
But they are 100% of the future tomorrow

Let them know
There's no easy way to do hard work
Let them know
Learning to count is valuable
But let them know
Learning what counts is powerful
Let them know
The only idea more made-up than a standardized test
Is a standardized student
Let them know
I may look like a teacher
But I am a tireless technician of tutorials
Training toddlers to teens
To target their talent and tenacity
Toward the top for today and tomorrow

With my hands on deck
I throw out lifesavers
When students are drowning in information
To keep them above "C" level
So they could sail through waves of frustration
And be in shipshape
To be on board scholarships

There are times when putting on fronts wear thin
And home issues aren't covered
They're days when things are tight
And the topic doesn't suit her
And he's had fewer socks on his feet than on his cheek
But staff is worried about dress code

I've seen boys bigger than me cry like babies
And girls too young with too many me-too stories
They are forced to sit calm
After seeing sitcom families canceled

It's an emergency
Fires natural disasters and active shooter
Is the new practice
Drills no longer exercise skills

As for me, I teach
And I realize that as I teach, I learn
I learn that math
Equals out when the common denominator
Is not treating students like a book of problems
I learn that science
Is hypothesizing the best formula
To stay positive as a proton
I learn that social studies
Is more than the three branches of government
It's showing how 
Family faith and finance is a foundation
And I learn that English
Is not about punctuation capitalization and spelling
When reading between the lines of a suicide note
I have learned that I don't teach a subject
I teach a child
Every child
The labeled, the college bond, the scared, the confident
The undiagnosed, the self-medicated
I have learned that I don't teach a subject
I teach the most perfect gift a parent has to send me: I teach.

***

*Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (affectionately referred to as 2019ATOY), is a 17 year Oral Communication instructor, AVID Coordinator and sponsor of the spoken word collective called Writeous Poets from Little Rock, Arkansas. She teaches at the historic Little Rock Central High School where she is the living embodiment of her ATOY platform of using passion and poetry to close the opportunity gap.*

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