As I have reflected this week on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, I came across one of his quotes that especially connected with me: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
His words have proved prescient in my own life. Many years ago, I deployed to The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for treatment for Clinical Depression. Once I was discharged from The Clinic, I finished my Bachelor’s degree at Washburn University and decided to make Topeka Kansas, my home. I was a naïve, 25-year-old first-time teacher excited to be launching my career in education. My first assignment was at East Topeka Jr. High School, the district made famous by the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that effectively ended desegregation in America.
As a young person, having the opportunity to teach in a diverse community at the epicenter of an important milestone in the Civil Rights movement was an unforgettable experience. When I arrived in Kansas, my experience with diversity was virtually nil and, candidly, I didn’t know as much as I should have about the American Civil Rights Movement or its leadership.
After two years of teaching, I was asked to continue teaching half-time and be the district’s Middle School Coordinator half-time, as well. As Middle School Coordinator, I led the district transition from junior high schools that served seventh, eighth and ninth grade students to middle schools that ultimately included grades six, seven and eight grades. Major curriculum changes were coming in response to concerns raised about equal opportunity in the earlier legal Supreme Court ruling. School closings were designed to upgrade the facilities in older run-down schools at the middle school level and balance the ratio of Caucasian and minority students in middle schools.
My job at the time was to work with administrators and teachers to develop programs, teaching methods and policies that served the needs, physical abilities and psychological and emotional characteristics of pre-adolescent students. Our number one priority was to build and align instructional programs with the age and characteristics of our students.
The experience helped shape my character, teaching me unforgettable life lessons that have served me ever since. Within just a few years, I became the first woman to serve as a secondary school principal in Topeka Public Schools. Shortly thereafter, I was nominated to represent our district in a high-profile debate schedule to be aired on the local radio station against a community member who disagreed with our program. After an emotionally exhausting exchange, I was proud of my performance and felt I’d upheld our position.
As I look back over that historic period, I feel that events helped shape me into a passionate and vocal supporter of equality and Civil Rights. It was always important for me to foster a culture of inclusion and fairness at the school districts I led.
The eloquent words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to resonate today, calling out to our better angels during today’s era of ugliness, in which voices from all sides seem intent on sowing discord and division.
Let’s resolve in 2018 to stand up against those who would promote hatred and bigotry in all its ugly forms, and uphold the noble principles of this great man whose dreams inspired a nation.
© Tyra Manning 2018