In my youth, I remember being influenced by a few inspiration specialists. One could call them educators, but they were more than that. Among them were Mr. Hannan, Mr. Kelcey, Mr. Kalfon, Mrs. Kennedy and Ms. Lam.
None of these inspirers realize how I valued them throughout the 90s, and since. Here, I can state it with gratitude, particularly now, as we discuss the need for Afro-centric schools — a concept that would limit, based on ethnicity, the inspiration pool serving young people.
Inspiration began with Mr. Hannan, whom I recall as a tall, skinny, bespectacled man with penetrating eyes, who entered my life in his middle years, and whose love of English and poetry helped ground me in my teenage years. He enjoyed the little rhymes I would spin, and in return, shared the works of poets like Edgar Allen Poe. I remember him whenever I look at a book that he gave me: American Verse. It’s lost its spine, but still notes the place of my introduction to great poets: Don Valley Junior High.
Mr. Hannan’s encouragement led me to believe that I was talented. And with a book of poetry, he encouraged a little light within me to keep burning. He also helped me define my strengths at a time when I needed strength to build my foundation.
Mr. Kelcey was a math man whose paunch suggested his other love was beer. And perhaps he’d had a few when he suggested that I should pursue an advanced (university-bound) rather than general (college-bound) curriculum in high school. Regardless, convinced by an A+ test score that I had math ability, he refused to sign any course list that included general math when he was sure I could handle the advanced course. He explained that by taking the advanced level courses I could still go to college, while keeping the door to university open. And that show of confidence forced me to stop low-balling my prospects.
With his steering, I dared to strategically plan my future. I also dared to take a different route into that future. This meant parting from my old friends for the majority of the school day and in some cases for life, but I followed through with the plan. I held tight to Mr. Kelcey’s words and thrived on his conviction, for somehow he had seen early on a brilliance I was dying to see also. His hope for me was infectious. All I needed was the willpower to overcome the nagging self-doubt that sought to erase his influence.
Mr. Kalfon was from Morocco, North Africa. It was a country I had never heard of until this dimpled, bronze-skinned man revealed his homeland. He spoke French and an accented English that was music to my ears. Unwittingly, his immigrant story inspired me. Though African, he was more likely of Arabian decent; he wasn’t black like me, yet that distinction was of no consequence. Even after knowing the continent of his birth, I didn’t categorize him as anything but an inspiration. After all, he was proof that immigrants can succeed in this frozen land, and maybe, so could I.
I don’t remember Mr. Kalfon for teaching me history in HCT1A0; I remember him for teaching me the value of the multicultural brotherhood and the humanity that binds us as we listen to each other’s story.
My high school co-op teacher, Mrs. Margaret Kennedy challenged me to look at myself differently. Beneath her unruly, greying curls, she had eyes that surely didn’t need the glasses fronting them. Somehow, in our brief interactions between placements (and maybe because of my journals for that class), she saw qualities that I had never seen or known within me. She described me using words like quick-witted, eloquent and smart — who, me? This woman was as crazy as her curls, as far as I could tell, and she seemed crazier still when she suggested that the aforementioned traits made me the perfect candidate to moderate our school’s elections assembly.
Mrs. Kennedy later helped me prepare for my first political involvement and afterwards she continued to sing my praises. Clearly she had invaluable insight. It not only led to one of my proudest accomplishments, but also taught me that I can do things that both scare me and seem impossible.
Young, round-faced Ms. Lam, who wore her hair in a bob fronted with bangs, taught English in my high school as a supply teacher until she earned a permanent position within our school. She worked hard to challenge us, and we knew we were challenging her (some even seemed to think it was their job to do so), but she, being flexible and clever, intended to teach. So when we wanted to listen to music in class she said we could. The catch: we would all have to listen to the same thing, and it would be classical music because that would simulate our brains for learning. The record player she brought to class must’ve been an heirloom, but it achieved its purpose. She performed her experiment, and from this determined and thoughtful Asian woman we involuntarily learned compromise, and valued her much more for it. I believe it’s that experience that has me occasionally enjoying classical music for the contemplative state it puts me in. Also because of her, I can cross cultural barriers with a universal love of music.
Ms. Lam also helped me to improve my writing. She was a demanding teacher, but she challenged me to keep my thoughts in order; question what I read; and value constructive criticism. I enjoyed writing for her and worked hard to impress her.
Finally, and notably, two men of African descent appeared as role models in my high school years. I wasn’t a student of theirs, but their presence comforted and inspired me. First is Mr. James, who coached the girls soccer team and guided the Afr-Can Heritage council. Quiet and athletically built, he practiced martial arts and also taught art class. He didn’t seem to fit or want to fit into any one category, and defied stereotype. Second is Mr. George A. Cornelius, who struck me as a wise elder during his time as principal of George S. Henry in my first year there. He and I passed each other often enough in the hallways, but we had one hallway conversation, and though I was intimidated to speak to this tower of power, I came away wanting to handle power with the grace and dignity he displayed.
Both Mr. James and Mr. Cornelius gave those desiring it, something to aim for. They stood tall in the face of stereotypes which suggest that black men are powerless, uneducated and criminal. It was valuable to observe them in such important roles, and setting high expectations for all, but a school filled with black men and women is not what helped me make it through my most unstable years; it was the diverse crew who were eager and available to inspire me whenever the opportunity appeared. Each, in his or her own way, took the time to reach me, without knowing if their methods were magical enough to inspire me to reach my full potential. After all, there is no formula for inspiration; it’s unique to each individual.
Years after graduation, as I reflect on my teenage years, I realize that I responded well when others displayed confidence in me; but that response is likely universal. Also, heart appears to have more inspirational power than hue; therefore, it would be nice to see the focus be on providing young people with diverse inspiration so that they can enthusiastically dream of unlimited futures, even when the present is fraught with limitations and negativity.
Again, thank you, to all my inspirers!