From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul


Just don’t give up what you’re trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.

Ella Fitzgerald

His phone call had come during a busy Friday afternoon the first week of June in 2000. I had other plans and told him so. “But I’ll see if I can change them. I’d like to be there.”

“It’s just—well, I just wanted to let you know that I’m graduating Sunday. You’ve always encouraged me to stay in school. You’re one of the biggest reasons I’m graduating. I wouldn’t have stuck it out if you hadn’t encouraged me.”

Nearly two years had passed since I’d heard from Otis. When he first started his studies at West Chester University, he contacted me regularly. As in most situations with kids going off to college, as time went by he called less frequently.

“I didn’t want to walk down that aisle on graduation day,” he said, “without having a chance to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

I barely remember my response because I kept thinking of Otis graduating.

During my early days of reactivating the chess team at Vaux Middle School, I had seen the possibilities in that kid. He was one of the older ones who already knew how to play and was better than most adults. Otis was shy and quite studious.

One thing, though: all through high school he called or came back to Vaux to let us know how school was going.

I wanted to be at his graduation, but I wasn’t sure I could make it, so I couldn’t promise. I did tell him how excited I was that he was going to graduate.

“You’re the first of my kids to make it through college,” I said. “That makes your graduation special, you know.”

After I hung up the phone, I paused and thought again about Otis Bullock. I felt warm inside after that call. It was finally happening! All those years of urging kids to stay in school and to keep on. Yes, I felt proud of him—the first of my kids to graduate from college. Others would graduate in the years ahead, but Otis would be the first.

I had seen as much promise in a number of kids who had dropped out of school after they left Vaux. Some had been murdered; a few had gotten into drugs and disappeared. Others moved away, and I lost track of them.

These inner-city kids face obstacles that middle-class Americans can’t understand. It’s more than a lack of money. Some get little support from their families and even less from their peers. Many of those kids have never known a father, and few of them have been inside a two-parent home.

Every day of their lives those kids live in the projects or near one. They know about drugs, violence and prostitution, and they can tell you where to buy a handgun. Most of them either had had someone murdered in their family or could name half a dozen kids in their neighborhood who never lived long enough to reach college age.

“Oh, God, it’s so hard for these kids,” I heard myself praying as I sat at my desk. “So many pressures from their peers and the pull of their community.”

Then I thought again of Otis. He had done it. He had paved the road that others could follow.

Throughout the rest of the day, my thoughts kept returning to Otis’s telephone call. In my mind, I could see him lined up with gown and tassel, waiting to receive his degree.

“I have to go to his graduation,” I said aloud. I wanted to see Otis graduate—to walk alongside those other graduates and receive his diploma. But even more important, I needed to be there—for me. I had to see hope fulfilled through Otis.

On the drive up, I kept thinking about inner-city kids. As long as they’re alive they have a chance to turn their lives around. As long as there are teachers and leaders out there giving of ourselves, we can make changes.

I wasn’t the only teacher or leader. There were others— many others—and each of us carried the same burden. We cared. And because we cared, it hurt deeply when we lost a child.

I kept thinking of the funerals I had been to during the past ten years—more than I wanted to remember. Some of those we buried were young—elementary- and middle-school kids who happened to be playing in the wrong place when a fight broke out.

When I was a boy, I had gone to funerals—but they were only for old people. I’d stare at their lined faces and gray hair, and it felt peaceful. They had lived their lives, but these kids were eight, ten or fourteen years old.

They’d never know what life really is. Too many inner-city kids grew up too fast—if they grew up—seeing the harshness of life on the streets every day. For the ten-year period beginning in 1990, I mentally ticked off almost twenty of my former students who had been murdered. That’s something I never thought about when I was studying to be a teacher. No education classes had ever mentioned coping with such grief.

Too many funerals.

The world is larger than North Philadelphia and bigger than the ghettos, I kept saying to myself. Education is their passport to another world. As I drove toward the university, I vowed afresh that I would give every child a passport to go wherever he or she wanted to go.

I know I’m impacting lives and careers—and that’s encouraging, but I’m just one person. I would have such a short time to impact each of these children. At most, I’d have six years to point them in new directions. That didn’t seem long enough.

I had debated about calling Otis before we left Philadelphia, but I decided not to. I wanted to be there and to watch his face the moment he spotted us.

Shawnna and I sat in the shade near the stadium stairs. It was almost one hundred degrees that Sunday, and several people collapsed from the intense sun and heat.

I fidgeted and squirmed until the graduating students marched in procession.

It took me a few seconds to spot Otis. I stared at him, hardly aware that tears had filled my eyes.

When he saw Shawnna and me, his eyes lit up and he grinned. I couldn’t hold back any longer. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I didn’t care. Otis had made it! He had beaten the poverty and the drugs and the peer pressure. He was alive and graduating from college. Between the pride and the tears, I paid little attention to the rest of the ceremony.

As soon as the graduation was over, Otis rushed over and hugged us. We made him pose for pictures alone, then with other classmates, with me, with Shawnna and me, with professors. I couldn’t get enough pictures of him in his graduation gown.

At least four times Otis thanked us for coming. He couldn’t seem to get over the idea that Shawnna and I would drive all the way from Philadelphia to see him graduate.

“When I called, I really didn’t expect you to come,” Otis said.

“I’m not sure you understand, Otis,” I said. “I needed to come to this graduation. I had to come. I’ve been to too many funerals. I needed to go to a graduation. I need to go to many of them. I hope that many more of my students will give me the opportunity to come and see them graduate and reach their goals and continue to hold to the commitments that they’ve made to themselves and to me.”

When I attend funerals, I weep over those kids and I ask myself and God how I can go to another one. Almost immediately, I find comfort in one thought: If I quit teaching, if I left the inner city, if I stopped reaching out to these kids, how many more funerals will take place that I might have prevented?

Then the pain eases. I know I need to keep teaching.

As I looked at Otis, standing there in his cap and gown, more than ever, I knew why I still choose to stay in the inner city.

Salome Thomas-El

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