Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week my daughter begins middle school. At 11, she has enjoyed more formal schooling than my grandmother. But as she begins another step on the way to an educated life, she is merely taking advantage of my grandmother’s legacy – a fundamental belief in the value of education.
My grandmother never went further than the third grade before she dropped out to help raise her younger siblings, yet the educational values she gave me will be passed down for generations.
Of course, I didn’t always appreciate it when, each time she heard the government radio station play the calypso by the Mighty Sparrow, Education, she would launch into another of her lectures on the importance of education.
“There is simply no room in the whole wide world for an uneducated little boy or girl,” Sparrow sang.
Even now I can’t listen to the song on YouTube without hearing echoes of my grandmother’s kitchen-sink lectures.
My grandmother is now 90. A product of the British colonial empire, she could only aspire to work on a cotton plantation. But she believed poverty is the best fertilizer for ambition and that being destitute is a springboard – not a hindrance – to academic success. She peppered her exhortations with anecdotes about local success stories who owned one school uniform that they washed each night to wear the next morning, and who, driven by poverty, climbed to the top of their class.
My grandmother intuitively knew what later studies proved: when parents unambiguously preached the gospel of education, students earned higher grades, completed homework, showed up regularly and on time for school, and were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.
A Center for Public Education survey similarly found more than 60 percent of teachers believe the more parents are involved, the better their students do. Parents, too, believe that children of uninvolved parents “fell through the cracks,” according to the think tank linked to the National School Boards Association.
The role of parents comes into focus not just as another school year begins, but also as politicians inevitably debate the best solutions to improve mediocre students and failing schools.
I’m no expert, but I know what worked for my grandmother, and what worked for me. She couldn’t help me with my math, so she paid for a tutor. She made sure I grabbed every opportunity before and after school. As my friends played cricket on the street outside my house on weekday afternoons, she insisted I hit the books. For years I resisted, but eventually her vision became mine. Success and failure inside the classroom mattered to me. I wanted my name to be called at every academic award ceremony.
Almost 50 years later, my grandmother’s ambition is my reality. But I’m not the only one who benefits. Everyone in her ancestral line can thank her. She has lived long enough to receive the accolades. She came to the ceremony where I earned my master’s. Three of her great grandchildren, my sister’s children, have already graduated from college.
And her legacy, her gift, goes even further. Each time I step inside a classroom, I take my grandmother’s vision with me. My students will never meet her, but they’ll always hear the voice of a woman with minimal schooling and a boundless faith in the power of education to transform lives. It changed mine. It can change theirs.
Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at andrewjskerritt.