In their beautiful image
What we see around ourselves today reflects what we see for ourselves in the future. What I saw was strong, beautiful, Black women educators.
Author: Melody Bradley
My teaching career officially began in February 2001 when I met Mrs. Mildred Davis from Grand Prairie ISD. I was attending a teaching job fair at my alma mater, the University of Central Arkansas, when I locked eyes with a beautiful brown-skinned black woman. She waved to signal me over, and when she spoke, I was in awe.
Mildred Davis was striking and dressed to impress. She also shared her name with my great-grandmother who had recently passed away. She informed me that Grand Prairie ISD was looking for black educators and special education teachers and that they were offering a $5,000 bonus for qualified candidates. I was both, so I took her name as a sign and agreed to an interview. By the end of the school year, I accepted a job offer from Grand Prairie ISD and was on my way to Texas. I have worked in GPISD ever since.
I saw myself in Mrs. Mildred Davis and I have thought of her, and many other strong, black women, as motivation during my career.
A living legend
By August 2001, I was a self-contained special education teacher at Sallye Moore Elementary, a brand-new campus that was named for the first African-American female principal in Grand Prairie ISD. And the school was named for her while she is still alive! So she’s a real living legend!
Sallye Moore is regal, classy and has a presence that commands a room. When she spoke at the building dedication, she spoke of her humble beginnings in the predominantly black community of Dalworth. A few things she shared that evening will never leave me.
She talked about driving down the street and seeing a new school that had her name on it and how it meant more to her than she could ever express. She challenged the teachers at the school to make excellence the standard.
Not everyone will have a school named in their honor, but they should strive for excellence as if they would because the children who would be coming soon deserved to see black people being excellent. As one of only five black teachers on campus that year, I took her charge personally.
For nearly 20 years I have worked hard to honor the legacies of educators like Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Moore. But it has not always been easy. SInce my teaching career began, I have at times felt marginalized. I am a strong black woman, like my mentors—but others can see my strength as harshness. Sometimes when I express educated critique, others have seen attack. It can feel like a heavy burden to maintain a strong presence and not feel weakened.
Yet I am comfortable in my own skin and see the beauty my blackness represents for the students in my care each day.
From inspired to inspiring others
Sometimes, when the burden seems unbearable, the children always show me the beauty I can bring to their lives. My first year at Sallye Moore Elementary, I had 13 students. I will always remember one black second grade girl who was labeled as high functioning mentally disabled. “Maya” was a beautiful child who came to school clean and well dressed, with all of her supplies, eager to learn. She was a happy child! Yet the thing that stuck out about her was her uncombed hair. Almost daily it was a mess!
I soon learned that Maya, a bi-racial child, was being raised by her aunt, who did not know how to style Maya’s thick curls. So I brought my hair supplies to school and asked if I could comb her hair. I will never forget the look on her face when she saw the bow I put in her hair.
Because of the connection we made, I asked my administration for permission to reach out to her family. With their blessing, over the course of the next four years I combed her hair at school. I built in flexible times for other students to work while I did her hair away from them to preserve her dignity. Her family was grateful and by the time she left my class as a sixth grader she was capable of caring for and styling her own hair—a strong and confident young black girl.
Reflecting on the beauty and burden
I often reflect on the beauty and the burden of being a black educator. There are times I have felt undervalued, unwelcome, invisible.
But my experiences have also allowed me to sit at the feet of women who came before me, and students like “Maya” are the reason I push through the adversities to serve as their black female inspiration.
I thank Mrs. Mildred Davis and Mrs. Sallye Moore for being excellent and willing to sit in places where blackness, beauty, and burden left a legacy to inspire me.
Who will you inspire?
Want to hear more from Melody? You're in luck! You can follow her on Twitter: @MelodyMBradley
Then follow in her footsteps
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