It was the first day of school during Byron Garrett’s second year as principal when he met a kindergartner who spoke no English.
Garrettt spoke no Spanish. He had no way to tell her how to get to the playground, to the bathroom, ask if she ate breakfast or had her school supplies. He remembers feeling unprepared, looking at the girl and thinking, “You didn’t come with any instructions. You’re standing right in front of me, though.”
As schools across Kent County on Monday honored civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at East Grand Rapids High School Aliya Osborne and Emily Bulkowski added their voices. Having co-written a poem on diversity, self-image and respect, they sent it into the world in a big way: reading it aloud over microphones set up in the high school commons area.
“Our gender does not define our intelligence and ability to love,” they read. “Our melanin does not define who we are or expected to be.”
Works around the themes of service, justice, peace and unity were invited to be read by students in honor of King, who would have been 88 years old Jan. 15.
EGR students also marked the day with an assembly that included a flag ceremony commemorating their various nations of origin, speeches from staff and students on King’s message and how it resonates today, and a dramatization of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by Kalamazoo-based orator Marvin Blanks.
The day’s events were organized by district student groups Champions of Diversity and Young People of Power.
On the playground, the girl fell down. “She stood up, started crying and immediately reached out,” Garrett recalled. “I instantly thought, ‘Oh, that’s right. You’re human just like me. You’re a little human, but that’s OK.’
“So I picked her up.”
During a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day multicultural in-service program, Garrett spoke about the need for educators to connect with students and their families in ways that tap into community and culture, in a society where technology is a huge part of everyday life and old systems need to be constantly modified.
He spoke of helping students feel confident and empowered, and to aim for high achievement.
Garrett is author of several books, including “The ABCs of Life,” a blogger for the Huffington Post, and chairman of the National Family Engagement Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at student success. He led the session in front of 1,200 district teachers, administrators and support staff.
“You cannot teach who you do not know… so you should know your community and where they live,” said Garrett, of the Washington, D.C. area.
He complimented Kentwood as one of the few districts he’s spoken to where all staff attended his session. That way, everyone hears the same message, he said: “It takes all of us to make this work.”
Kentwood Public Schools includes students from nearly 80 countries and who speak 61 languages, said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff. It hosts professional development based on diversity every year for the King holiday.
“Let’s continue our work of showing a world where people of all races, creeds and religions and whatever they throw at us will continue to strive for excellence and achieve that excellence,” Zoerhoff said to his staff.
“I wish that anyone who’s struggling would watch us. I believe we will become even more of a beacon of light for those who don’t feel like they have a place where they can go and feel accepted.”
Fulfilling King’s Mission
A native of North Carolina, Garrett can rattle off the names of teachers who connected with him in unforgettable ways: fourth-grade teacher Connie Martin, fifth-grade teacher Candace Hayes and sixth-grade teacher Barbara Twitty. “The three of them really helped shape foundationally how I would navigate life in the school system moving forward.”
Garrett told the group that educators are living King’s message of serving others by shaping the lives and views of young citizens.
“(King) fundamentally believed and contended that education is an equal right amongst all and it’s also the great equalizer, the one common denominator if we all have the same quantity, the same context, the same experience and the same environment.”
But he cautioned, “It doesn’t mean everything is equal right now, because it’s not.”
Garrett travels all over the nation to speak, experiencing a great cross-section of the population. Pushing for equity in education in a divided country is a challenge, he said.
“I am eternally optimistic and hopeful as I encounter folks in the education space who realize they are not waiting for some magical answer or solution. Never have they waited for a magical solution to emanate from the nation’s capital or the state house, but instead they’ve stayed focused.”
Still, there’s a different undercurrent and divisiveness that exists right now, he said.
“For too long we’ve ignored some realities that have existed,” he asserted. “Now we have no choice but to confront them head-on. We can’t do that with a spirit of hate. We can only do that as Dr. King said and admonishes us, with a spirit of love.”
I Was Not Born…
by Aliya Osborne and Emily Bulkowski, East Grand Rapids High School
I was not born to be defined by my color;
I don’t want to live under the fear of people’s stereotypes.
I want to be seen for who I am and not for my color.
I was born a woman,
But I was not born with the idea that I was limited because of it,
Society taught me that.
Yet I want to be seen for who I am and not for my gender.
When I was little I dreamed of being a teacher.
But my starter school didn’t teach me how to read.
I grew up not having the best grades and I believed that I was not smart.
I felt inferior although I knew I was capable of more.
Society attempted to teach me how to act my gender:
What subject I should be good at, what I should wear,
That I need makeup to be pretty.
Yet what society wanted me to be, isn’t what I wanted to be.
In this significant life we are not taught to love ourselves, but to fix ourselves.
We’re told to change so that we can fit in with society’s demands.
We have grown so accustomed to the labels that we are raised to live by,
That we forget we are more than what others say we are.
It’s time to evolve, it’s our time and our turn.
We can make a difference like many before us.
We are a world of diverse people.
We are all born with our differences.
Our gender does not define our intelligence and ability to love.
Our melanin does not define who we are or expected to be.
Our figures don’t represent our worth and strength.
It’s time we start respecting one another.
Let go of your opinions and stereotypes and open your heart.
Our actions speak louder than our words.