I Was Homeless and In and Out of School. Then I Got Into Ms. Russell’s Car.

Mar 21, 2017 12:00:00 AM


I wasn’t supposed to be where I am today. People repeatedly told me, “You ain’t nothin’. You ain’t neva gon be nothin’.” I saw my first murder at age 11, and, by the time I turned 15, I was on my own—sleeping outside under bridges and park benches, unable to bathe, shower or even brush my teeth for months. I ate out of garbage cans. I was physically and emotionally damaged and the way statics work I was likely to be found dead or in prison. Today I am a seasoned educator, an accomplished scholar and an avid researcher.

They Were Wrong, I Knew I Was Gifted

I’ve often wondered why people were so wrong about me. The truth is, not many people believed in me because I lived in “the projects.” I was your average poor kid growing up in a single-parent home without a father. Yet, I was gifted. When I was 6 years old, a young neighbor, in the throes of revenge against my sister, hit me in the face with a brick. The injury caused ocular trauma to my left eye leaving me with life-long bouts with double-vision as well as a visual convergence deficiency. Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 12.15.26 PM It took me a long time to read anything because the images and words on the page were revealed in sandwich images. My teachers thought I was “slow” so they put me in a reading class. I wasn’t slow. I was brilliant but because it seemed like no one cared to know, I fell through the chasm in education that seems to be designed for poor children who lack advocacy. Despite my experience learning in school, between my grandfather’s influence watching Alex Trebek and Walter Cronkite and my mom’s love for Agatha Christie and Iceberg Slim, I became enamored with books and learning.

There Was Too Much Going On, I Couldn’t Think

As time waned on, my situation changed as my mother sank into crack addiction. It was one of the most difficult and painful times in my life, I was 14. From that moment on, I would lose much of my grip on reality. School became increasingly difficult, not because I didn’t know or understand content but, because I couldn’t think. I was raped for the first time shortly after my mother became addicted—after that, I would be sexually assaulted more times than I could quantify and any feelings of safety, attempts at being demure or desires to grasp self-worth evaporated. What felt more appropriate for my survival was to erupt into angry outbursts that could not be extinguished. I brought my anguish to school with me and the educators, counselors and administration were ill-equipped to understand or solve my problems. I was eventually expelled for a violent outburst toward a substitute teacher. By that time, I was 16 and trying to survive on the streets of Chicago.

‘Little Girl, Get Your Butt in This Car!’

Yes, my story is a rough one and it could have turned out much worse if I hadn’t met a woman named Ms. Russell. I remember like it was yesterday: she saw me walking, then pulled up next to me in her burgundy Buick Regal. Ms. Russell casually rolled down her window and said, “Hey sweetie. What are you doing out here in the dark? Can I give you a ride home?” I didn’t know her so I resisted by coming up with every lie or excuse I could think of until Ms. Russell finally put her foot down and demanded I get in the car, “Little girl, get your butt in this car!” She changed my life. At that moment, [pullquote position="right"]for the first time, I knew I was worth something.[/pullquote] Before my interaction with Ms. Russell, I was waiting for death to take me before my 18th-birthday. It was what my friends and I always talked about: when and how we would die. Ms. Russell took me home and began asking me about my future, “Where are you going to school [college]?” No one had ever asked me that question so, with my head hung low and with tears in my eyes, “I can’t go to college. That’s not what I’m supposed to do.” Ms. Russell replied with a sort of concerned force, choosing her words carefully but ensuring I didn’t feel reprimanded, “I can tell you are brilliant just by talking to you. You are unique, intelligent and special. I can definitely see you going to college.” Her words connected with the seed of hope deep within my soul and birthed within me both self-acceptance as well as a vehement defiance against everything that tried to prevent my future success. She made me militant about my future.

All You Need Is One

If you’re a teacher and you teach, as I do, at a school filled with urban students who are devoid of hope, you may feel like, “These kids don’t hear me and they don’t care.” Let me tell you as one of them: We do care and you do matter, especially when we make you feel like you don’t. [pullquote]Students in poverty do not choose to be difficult for the sake of it.[/pullquote] They honestly don’t know how to respond most of the time. They feel lost in a world where people give up on them and leave them (think about how many classes in our public Title I schools have year-long subs). The positive in this scenario is that one teacher (and all they need is one) who comes in consistently sowing and watering seeds. Administration may not acknowledge or recognize what you do, but the impact on those students will impact all of us. You are invaluable! If you’re a student, I need to leave you with this thought and it is in concert with what Ms. Russell said to me, “You are unique, intelligent and special. You can do whatever you decide to do.” No matter how hard things get, never give up on yourself, even if everyone else seems to. You are our hope.

Yolanda R. Whitted

Yolanda R. Whitted is a middle school English language arts and reading teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as an advocate for urban gifted and talented youth in poverty. Whitted was once herself an urban, unidentified gifted and talented student living on Chicago's South Side. Now, she feels understanding her story, challenges and triumphs helps Whitted to be a great support for both students and teachers who live in urban areas. In addition to her full-time teaching role, she currently conducts research, designs curriculum and creates best practices/professional development for teachers in urban classrooms. Whitted has designed and facilitated professional development for Dallas Independent School District, The College Board, Institución Educativa Nets in Bayamón, Puerto Rico as well as abroad at United Private Schools in Muscat, Oman. Whitted is an active North Carolina Central University alumna, as well as a member of Sigma Tau Delta, The National Council of Teachers of English, the National Educators Association, and Texas Association for the Gifted & Talented.

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