Editor’s note: Seheri Swint delivered the following remarks at the School of Education’s graduation ceremony on May 23, 2017.
Could streetlights ever bright such darkness?
Where I walk beside my own shadow and watch
The cracks in concrete pavement grow
Where children roam loitered lots
Tossing sticks and stones through the blood stained dirt.
I pass the remnants of homes
Left abandoned with a myriad of belongings
And dreams lying broken and scattered
Like the families that once possessed them.
Yet the sun shines even here…
Lighting my pathway when I doubt there is one
Yes the sun shines even here
Where night collides with gunfire
And stars descend without hope
I chase my dreams back inside the house.
I protect them because the sun shines even here.
That was an excerpt from a poem I wrote in high school called “Ghost Town.” I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Around the time I was in high school, I began to notice that the city was declining. It was shrinking. More homes were becoming vacant. Businesses were closing their doors and schools were shutting down. Through my eyes, it seemed to me that my hometown was dying.
I attended Detroit public schools for most of my K-8th grade education. For high school, I attended a school just outside of the city. The suburban school district had recently suffered financial problems and a dwindling student population. In an effort to boost enrollment, students from the inner city were permitted to enroll there. I was one of those students.
I recall being very excited to start high school. But not long after the school year began, I noticed not everyone was excited about me being there.
After many years, Detroit is still is a hyper-segregated city, so the vast majority of students integrating into the high school were Black like myself. I remember public meetings where residents passionately voiced their concerns about students like me being there. I remember arriving at school one day to the words “Kill Detroit” spray-painted in black letters on a school wall. I remember multiple bomb threats and needing to be evacuated from the building. But almost worse than the threats was the sting of feeling unwanted.
Of course, there were students, teachers, and administrators who were supportive of the school’s integration. They were the ones who made me believe that if I only worked hard and stayed focused, I could achieve my dreams. They were the ones who gave me the sweet gift of feeling wanted.
Those who saw my peers and I from Detroit as a problem infecting their school didn’t know the challenges I faced.
They didn’t know I had to wake up in the dark hours of early morning, catch two buses and then walk a mile to get to school each day. They didn’t see the skeletal remains of homes that I saw every day. They didn’t know what it was like to walk along unlit streets holding yourself tightly and always looking over your shoulder. They never knew the names of the boys I grew up with who met bullets and never got to graduate.
They didn’t know that my father worked at an auto factory for over 35 years until he was too sick to keep working. They didn’t know that my mother was often in between jobs. They didn’t know that when the lights were off in my house, I did my homework by lantern, Or when our hot water tank was broken, my father warmed up water in a pot for me to wash from.
They didn’t know that my one hope for so long was that I could do well in school and be somebody. They only knew that I was from the inner city of Detroit and I was not welcome at their school.
Over time, the opposition to the school’s integration seemed to settle and became covert. I remained at the high school all four years to not only earn a place there but prove I was capable.
When it came time for me to graduate, I was very honored to hold the number one ranking in my class. While many from the school district congratulated and supported me, others were not pleased. There were some who said that the valedictorian should be a student from within the school district. Rumors swirled that I did not deserve the honor.
Finally, it was decided that I would share the title of valedictorian with a student from within the school district whose GPA was just slightly below mine. And so that year, there were 2 valedictorians and a salutatorian.
I chose to share this story with you today because it really sparked my interest in urban education. My inner city upbringing and my high school experience ignited a fire within me to care for those students from unwanted spaces; to see the invisible wounds that they carry; to advocate for equitable education; to challenge stereotypes and to pave new pathways for students to travel toward success.
I came to the Johns Hopkins School of Education to formally study urban education and untangle some of the ideas and thoughts that I had formed around it. What I found here is an incredible network of educators who are committed not only to Baltimore City but also to its children who go to school each day grasping for an opportunity that often seems just outside their reach.
In my courses, I found opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and explore my research interests. Last semester, I had the opportunity to conduct action research with high school students from West Baltimore about the challenges they faced commuting to school. The semester before that, I took Dr. Rice’s class on “The Social Context of Urban Education” that was co-taught by D. Watkins, a man who grew up in East Baltimore and experienced some of the same challenges as me before earning his Master of Science of Educational Studies from this school. I read “Unequal Childhoods” by Annette Lareau whose research looks at the impact of race, class, and socioeconomic status on children’s development.
For me, these experiences were not only enlightening, they were healing. They helped me to understand my own educational journey and shaped the lens through which I see the world around me. Most importantly, my time here in the School of Education has affirmed ‘the need to see the need.’ And once you see the need, once you take off your cool shades of indifference and put on the humbling glasses of awareness, let me tell you. You can never unsee. You can never unknow. You can never underestimate just how important you are in this daily fight to protect and improve education in our country.
As educators, we are guardians of dreams and gatekeepers of greatness. We are the light — sometimes the only light — shining into another person’s ghost town. As we leave this arena today, let us each go forth to our respective stations of purpose with a renewed commitment to see the need and meet the need. Thank you.