Can you talk a little about where you grew up and what your journey was? It sounds like you didn’t expect to be a teacher.
I grew up in a small tiny town, in North Carolina, population 400, and all my life I wanted to get out and have adventures. My family never had a lot of money to travel and so I never got an opportunity to scratch that itch. I went to school at ECU, Eastern Carolina. I graduated and went to work at the Dunkin’ Donuts. I saved up $600, I thought I was high on the hog.
I got a one-way ticket to London and flew there, and I became a singing and dancing waiter at a restaurant called The Texas Embassy Cantina. I got my backpack and went all across Europe. I went country to country, and I loved it! For the first time in my life, I felt really alive, and I was seeing what the world was about.
I ended up in Rumania, staying with a family of gypsies. Whatever they fed me, I ate it, 'cause I didn’t want to be disrespectful. One time they fed me something, I wasn’t sure what it was, turns out it was rat. I got really sick, I had food poisoning. I kept getting weaker. So I flew home to North Carolina, and my mama said, “Listen to me, these adventures have got to stop!” And she told me at the local elementary school there was a fifth-grade teacher who passed away. It was a rough school, she said, they had a hard time getting teachers in that area. She said, “If you don’t take that job, that class is going to have substitutes for the rest of the year.”
She said if I didn’t at least go talk to the principal that she was never going to support me financially again. So I said, okay, I’ll at least go talk to this principal. And I went in, the principal was telling me how challenging the class was. I told her I wasn’t interested in teaching. She said, “Well, if you’re not interested, why are you even here?” I said, My mama made me come, I didn’t want to be here!
But she said, “Let me show you the class.” I walked into the classroom, the kids were going crazy. They were loud. The poor substitute teacher’s wig was off to one side. This little boy’s desk was pushed up to the front door. I looked down at this kid. He looked up at me and said, “Is you gwon be our new teacher?”
And I said, “I guess.”
Anyone who knows me would tell you I follow my heart. If I really feel something I know I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t even question myself, I just go for it. In that moment, I had a feeling I was called to go into that classroom. And I said, “Okay, I’ll teach this class.”
When I got in that classroom, I found out these kids didn’t really have what I had growing up. I grew up with a true Southern upbringing; my grandmother lived in the house with us. Manners, respect, discipline. I was taught how you should care for other people. My family just set a great example of the meaning of life, for them, which is to do all you can to make a difference in the lives of others, and to help your friends, your family, your enemies, your neighbors…everyone around you. So I was brought up with that same philosophy.
I really started working hard at developing, not only curriculum, but rules about manners and respect for others, and that’s how the “55 Essential Rules” started. The first year I had a list of 5, and then the next year I went to 8, then 12, then 22, then the next year 28. Then I moved to Harlem to teach and it grew to 55. What I found was that once I taught these kids about life, and about how to respect each other and how to be a family in that classroom, the environment in the classroom totally changed. The kids wanted to be there, they were clapping for each other, lift each other up. At the end of the year, their test scores went through the roof.