I don’t know if Winnie Beasley ever knew what an impact she had on my life. I was a shy 7th grader, a multiracial kid trying to figure out how the different facets of my identity fit together – part of the much larger puzzle of figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be and what I might do with my life.
To me, “Ms. Beasley” was a giant. Granted, I was not a tall kid and she towered above me. But she was a giant in other ways, too. She was the first African American teacher I had ever had, and as a multiracial Army brat growing up in a small town near the local military base, she was the first college educated person of color that I remember meeting. Ms. Beasley had attended an HBCU in the South, and earned a graduate degree from the University of Michigan, one of our country’s finest research universities, before becoming an English teacher in the public school that my siblings and I attended.
Ms. Beasley was smart (obviously), well-read (I guess that probably goes with being an English teacher) and, at least as I remember her, a stickler for grammar. She set high expectations for her students, but unlike my experience in other classes, I never felt judged (or worse yet, pre-judged) by her. Instead, I felt supported and challenged, like she saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there, or that I’d already learned to conceal from the view of my teachers, lest I get separated from my less academically oriented peers. And somehow I knew that she would not let me off the hook until she was convinced that I’d at least tried to see how far I could reach. While I was ambivalent about the classroom dynamic in other classes, in Ms. Beasley’s class I felt accepted, respected, and therefore obligated.
I found my voice in Ms. Beasley’s class. I remember having turned in a paper that I thought was my best effort to date, only to have her ask me to stick around to speak with her after class. My heart raced. My palms sweat and my mouth went dry. Had I screwed up or, worse yet, let her down?
She started her remarks by pointing out things she liked about my paper. I think I heard about every fifth word as I waited for the hammer of criticism to fall. Then she said something along the lines of ‘it’s obvious that you have thought a lot about this issue, and that you have an opinion, maybe even a strong one. I want more. You have an opinion and I want to know what it is.” I interpreted her feedback, with whatever level of accuracy I was able to hear it, as “you have a voice, so use it!”
My life’s work has been as an educator and advocate, and every day I pray that I am able to use my intelligence, resourcefulness and voice for the benefit of others, to help them see and seize opportunities that can improve their lives. And I use the voice that Ms. Beasley helped me find to call out the ways that structures and practices need to change so that more students feel supported, able to engage, and willing to put themselves on the line to demand the education that they deserve.
To the extent that I have been successful and had a positive impact, I can trace it back to the serendipity of finding myself in Winnie Beasley’s seventh grade classroom at a time when I needed a role model who would elevate my self-expectations through a blend of support and challenge. Thank you, Ms. Beasley, wherever you are!