I’m a story teller by nature and if you’ll indulge me for a minute or two, I’ll share with you how I acquired my passion to make a difference in education.
I’m originally from a small town in the coalfields of southwest West Virginia. Both sides of my family were coal miners and farmers as far back as anyone can remember. We didn’t feel poor in the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up, but as I look back, we didn’t have much extra either. My parents were good parents and my brother and 3 sisters and I were raised in a loving atmosphere. However, I can’t remember one time being asked if I had homework much less having it looked over. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to study much to get decent grades. I even made the A/B honor roll. Everything went well until college. I had not developed good study habits and had little self-discipline. The long and the short of it is that I finished with a Regents Degree, which is basically a bachelor of arts for attending college. My grades were deplorable. I left college with very low self-esteem, even though I had been student government president and involved in everything on campus except class. After college, I ended up working very hard for quite some time at very low paying jobs.
I was about 30-yrs.-old when I started to work for Regal Marine for $5.50 an hour 21 yrs. ago. Now, I’m the director of manufacturing for Regal Marine’s operations in Georgia. Finally, I make a good living. With a little self-discipline, however, I could have skipped over a lot of those hard years in-between. A part of my passion is to see kids develop good study skills when they are young so they don’t have to suffer through the years of turmoil I did to develop the self-discipline needed to be successful. Helping kids reach their full potential makes my troubled years seem less wasteful.
Another event that shaped my thinking on education is what happened with our oldest son. He was born two weeks late and weighed 10 lbs. I was standing in the door watching the nurse give him his first bath when she screamed. In horror I thought she had found an extra appendage or something equally bad.
“Look at that, he’s crawling off the table. Newborns aren’t supposed to be able to do that!” she said in amazement.
Of course he can, silly nurse, I thought, he’s my son.
Zach was going to be the smartest kid in his class, run the fastest, be the high school quarter back, attend Harvard and become President of the United States. I was sure of it. And unlike me, he was going to be disciplined and have the best study habits of any kid. You don’t achieve greatness without a firm foundation and Nancy and I were going to make sure he had that.
But Zach hardly mumbled a word until well after he was 3-yrs.-old. At 4, no one except his mother and I could understand a word he said. It was obvious something was not quite right. We had him tested. Thankfully, he tested in the “normal” range albeit at the low end. We had him enrolled in speech therapy at the local elementary school which was provided free of charge. My heart broke one day when I visited the preschool and watched Zach playing alone because he couldn’t communicate with the other kids. I imagined Zach living with Nancy and me the rest of our lives.
But we continued to pour into Zach, reading to him constantly. Driving, we would point out and read road signs. We read books and searched the Internet on early childhood development.
Slowly but surely the speech therapy and the time we spent with Zach began to pay off. He had trouble pronouncing a couple of consonants, but you could understand him clearly. By 5 he could read a few words and he had several of the storybooks we read to him memorized. Zach’s birthday is in late August, so his age wasn’t a big deterrent when we asked for him to be held back from entering kindergarten.
Then something almost miraculous happened. After struggling so much, Zach came into his own. In kindergarten he was at the top of his class and he has stayed at the top of his class ever since. He is 15-yrs.-old now and a freshman at Valdosta High School. He has made only 3, B’s and the rest A’s throughout his academic career.
Here’s an anecdote that shows what kind of person Zach has become. One night driving home from a visit to my parents, Zach and I were in the car alone when he said, “Dad, I don’t need to have all the power in the world. I don’t want to be president.” Where’s he coming from, I thought. Then I remembered the book he and I had read by Andy Andrews, The Traveler’s Gift, The Seven Secrets to Success. One of the secrets is that you should desire enough power to make a difference in the world for the good.
Zach continued, “I just want to become a lawyer, then a judge and then become a senator. We need someone who will do the right thing and really cares about people. And I won’t need a lot of money, just enough to take care of my family and you and Mom when you get old.” He was 10-yrs.-old at the time.
Zach hasn’t changed his goals since that night and I believe with everything in me he will reach them. [Zach will be graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in Computer Science spring of 2017.]
I believe every child has that potential. For years I squandered my potential and I see Zach, who in another family without the proper support could have turned out very differently, developing into a person who will make the world a better place. We can’t let our struggling students continue to languish for a lack of support. The school systems can only do so much.
It’s amazing what just a little support can do to help kids reach their potential.
Here is a story about Wilbert, 5th grade and Joelel, 2nd grade, 2 brothers who were playing in the common area outside my office. Their stepfather picked them up from school and then they waited 20 minutes or so for their mother to get off work. The stepfather had trouble keeping them in the car after they were cooped up in school all day. I began getting complaints from our associates. What if they got hurt? Regal would be responsible
“If it was my wife picking me up from work, she’d have those boys doing homework,” I reasoned, so I asked the boys’ mother if they could come into my office to begin their homework and I would help them as time allowed.
“They need all the help they can get,” she said. “They’re struggling in school, especially the youngest. I just hope and pray they pass.”
For the next six months, I averaged meeting with the boys about twice a week for 15 minutes at first and then more as I saw the difference the time I spent with them made. They usually said they didn’t have homework, which I thought was suspicious, so I had the oldest read books, starting with The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, one of the books Zach and I had read together. I bought storybooks and had Joelel read them aloud.
The oldest was exceptionally smart. Not only did he understand the meaning behind each story, but he remembered names and intricate details of the books. “Wilbert is smarter than I am,” I thought. “His mom’s hoping he just passes, but this youngster has the potential to make straight A’s and go to a good college.”
The younger boy struggled with reading and stumbled over basic words. “Don’t worry, Joelel,” I would say. “You’ve got until Christmas. If you read this whole book and don’t miss any words, I’m going to arrange for a special treat for you and your family. You’ll be a hero.”
On the last day of work before the holiday shutdown, Wilbert and I sat beside Joelel as he read the book. Most pages the child read with confidence, much different than in the beginning. But there were some very hard words, much beyond his grade level, particularly toward the end of the book. Wilbert and I held our breath as Joelel came upon especially challenging words. Shouts of joy and high fives went all around as Joelel finished the book without missing a word. Associates from down the hall, who had initially complained about the boys playing in the common area, joined in the celebration.
Not only did Wilbert pass fifth grade, but also made honor roll for the first time. Joelel’s teacher asked for a parent/teacher conference. This time it wasn’t to discuss a problem, but to report on his vast improvement. The mother reported for the first time ever, he had grabbed a book and laid down on the couch to read for enjoyment.
Of course, not every story will end like the one above, but there are hundreds just like it waiting to happen throughout the Valdosta/Lowndes area. It seems daunting to commit 30 minutes to an hour a week when you can’t find enough time to do the things already on your schedule. But it’s worth it! There is no doubt in my mind I got more out of our relationship than the kids did.
So hopefully, now you understand why I have such a passion to improve education. We don’t have to settle for the current state of affairs in our schools. We don’t have to wait for teachers, school administrators or the government to get their act together. By spending 30 minutes a week with a child, you can change his/her life; and when joined with enough people, you can change the community; and when other communities follow our example, you can change the nation and eventually the world. It starts with one; it starts with you.