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Special Address to the 2002 NEA Representative Assembly

Remarks by Sandra McBrayer, Executive Director of the Children's Initiative Delivered July 4, Dallas, Texas


Thank you. I am nervous. I am sweating. Are you?

You know, I was actually here a day ago and I heard the vote about not wanting speakers. So I am going to talk really fast so you can get back to business. Otherwise, those of you who don’t want me to speak can leave now. No, I am teasing. Stay seated. That was a joke.

You know, I also heard Bob in his keynote. And I heard him talk about pardons. And it is funny, because the United States Teacher of the Year gets a handful of pardons also. Only ours don’t expire. And so I wanted to bestow two very special pardons today.

The first one is to Bob Chase. And some of you might ask what it is for. And the rest of the room in unison are going to yell: “Dancing!” Those of you who have not seen or had the pleasure of dancing with Bob will know this pardon is just. And my toes know it is just.

I also want to give a special pardon to Reggie. And it is not that Reggie has done anything yet. But I want to say, whatever you think you want to do, Reggie, just do it, brother, because you got a pardon in your pocket. So just go for it.  So can I say for the next six years, Reggie, you have got a pardon in your pocket.

You know, it is funny having been in front of you so long ago. And it is interesting what happens when you are the United States Teacher of the Year. And I want to be very candid and very honest. Your whole world changes. And I have to admit, part of it is really cool. But you forget. You forget that you are not really all that—until you go home and talk to your mom!

But, you know, it is amazing. Because you are on all these television shows, you are in the newspaper, you are flying first class. I like first class. I like valet parking. I am sorry, but I do. And sometimes you get so caught up, you start believing your own press. And you start thinking that you are all that. And I want to start today with a quick story that put me back in my shoes. You see, I was giving a speech recently—and I am not going to name the state or the conference.

But it was huge conference. It was 19,000 people. Much like today. And I actually got to the conference early. And as many of you know, I don’t do that. And I thought, since I am here early, I am going to check in—which is something I also don’t tend to do. And I was proud of myself, getting there early. So I went to go check in. And I went to the little registration desk. And you have to imagine the convention center holding 19,000 people and all of the different booths. And I went up to the registration desk and I said, “Hi, I’m Sandy McBrayer, I’m here to speak,” and was telling her all about me.   And she said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Wait a minute. This is the registration desk. First you have to go to the badge desk to get a badge, because of extra security, and show your ID, before you come back to the registration desk.”

I thought, “Well, okay, that makes sense.” So I walked a mile through the convention center to the badge desk. And I hadn’t worked out yet, so I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. And I went to the badge desk and I said, “Hi, I’m Sandy McBrayer, I’m here to speak, and I need to get a badge so I can go register at the registration desk.”

And the woman said, “Well, actually, you are not registered at all. So you need to go to the first registration desk, because you have to be on our list.”

And I thought, “Okay, I can do this, too, and I can still be chipper.” So I went back to the other registration desk. And I made a mistake, I went to the registration called on-site registration. And I went up again and told them who I was and why I was there. And she said, “Miss, I’m sorry, you actually have to go to this other special desk since you haven’t registered, because, you see, you haven’t paid your fee.”

Now, some of you also know I don’t always use appropriate language. But I was trying. So I went to the other little desk and I explained who I was for the fourth time. And the woman said, “I can help you.” And I was so excited. I said, “This is great.” I said, “Okay, here I am. I’m ready to go. Can I get my little badge?”

And she said, “Well, that will be $84.”

I said, “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m the keynote speaker. I’m here to speak.”

And she said, “Everyone pays $84.”

And I thought maybe I was not being clear. So I tried it again. I said, “No, no, no. You don’t understand.” And then all of a sudden I saw right in front of her was this huge conference book. And you know how big a conference book is for something that large. It was bound and everything. So I ripped open the book and there was a full-page picture of me. I said, “Look. See? It’s me.”

And she said, “Yes, it is. It was obviously taken awhile ago.”

And I said, “Get paid much for this job?” And I said, “You’re right, it was.” I said, “But I’m the speaker, and I need to get in there.” And she said, “I’m sorry, it’s $84.”

And I said, “You know, I’m getting paid a lot of money to be here today.” And she looked up. And so I leaned forward and I said, “I’m getting paid a lot of money to speak here today.”

And without missing a beat, she looked at me and she said, “So I guess you can afford the $84.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I paid the $84.  And I quickly stepped back in my shoes and said, “Sandy, you ain’t all that. Be humble. Remember, a lot happened before you got here.”

I came here for two reasons, ladies and gentlemen. The first is because of Bob Chase. Because, for one, I can’t say no to that man. But what he has shown me and taught me for the last six years is a man with courage, with humility, with humor, a man who never gave up and never gave in, a man I honor, from the bottom of my heart, a man who every single day said, “It’s about the kids. Let’s do right.”

I am here also because of you. I came in front of you eight years ago. I was so young and so naive. And you welcomed me. I was scared to death. I have been to every one of your states. You welcomed me. You fed me—some of you better than others.

You clothed me—some states I won’t go back to. You picked me up. And I won’t mention the woman who was so excited to pick me up she ran a red light and we got in an accident. You took me on tours of your states. I had never been to a pig farm, a chicken farm, an oil well, a coal mine. I had pie with your Grammy. I met your new boyfriend—and I approved. And you did it all. And at times you even called your family when the hotel had sold my room and said, “I’m bringing a guest home. She’s sleeping on the couch.”

But what you did for me was fill me up. You touched my soul. You taught me that it is about the kids. There is nothing you wouldn’t do for them. You reached out to me. And so I came to thank you personally. Because you have given me hope. You have given me courage. And every time I stand up to speak, it is your spirit I speak with, teachers and support staff all over this country who wake up and walk out the door and say, “It’s about kids.” So I came here to honor you, to thank you. I am humble to be in front of you.

I was asked by Bob to talk about independence in America and what it meant about children. And when I talked to people about what that meant, I was reminded of a story I used to tell when I was national teacher. And that is what I want to share with you, an old story about one of my old kids. Because it is all really about what we do in the classrooms, America, and what has happened since 9/11. It is not about bumper stickers. It is not about flags in our windows. It is about us standing up, reaching out, risking. It is about us continuing on to believe in kids.

I had a student who wasn’t my student yet when I met him. He was out on the streets. I walked up to a group of young boys who were standing and hanging out, and he was standing with them. I said hello to the whole group, and they all answered but him. And I started to talk. He walked away. I thought it was a little odd, but I didn’t think much of it. And the next day when I saw them again, the same thing happened.

He wouldn’t talk to me. And I couldn’t figure out why.

And over the course of several days, I started asking the other kids about him. And they said, “Well, we don’t know what’s wrong, but he doesn’t talk much, and when he does, he talks funny.” So I found out his name and I started to do research. I found out his name was Marcus. Marcus had a speech impediment, an impediment that actually got worse as he got older. He would later tell me about his life, about how he would walk down the halls when he was a sophomore in high school and kids would see him coming and they would go the other way. He would tell me about when he would raise his hand in class and the teacher would say, “Oh, Marcus, it’s going to take too long, write it down, tell me later.” He would talk about eating alone at lunch, he would talk about people making fun of him, even his own family.

And one day Marcus decided to stop trying, to stop talking, to stop struggling so hard. And so one day in class he didn’t speak. He just became quiet. And do you know what happened as he continued to be quiet from class to class and throughout the day? All of a sudden people started paying attention to him. All of a sudden people wanted his attention. Teachers started encouraging him, going, “Come on now, Marcus, just try.” At lunch, kids started sitting with him, trying to get him to talk. His parents came in for a parent-teacher conference. And he still didn’t talk. His grades started to fall with his lack of participation. His dad got angry. His dad said, “Damn it, Marcus, talk to your teacher.” And Marcus simply shook his head no.

Because for the first time in his life he felt power. He felt control. He felt that he got to do what he wanted to do. And he felt noticed with his action.

But Marcus made a vital mistake. He took that silence into his own home. His brothers and sisters laughed. His mom shrugged. But after a day or two, his dad lost his patience, and he screamed at Marcus. “Young man, I might not be able to make you talk, but, boy, I can make you scream.” And he hit him. And hit him. And hit him. And hit him.

In the middle of the night, Marcus realized that he was not safe, it was safer on the streets than in his own home, and so he fled. And that is when I met him, out on those streets.

I said, “Marcus, come to my school. It’s different.” He looked at me funny and walked away. I said, “Marcus, I’m not a regular teacher.” He looked at me funnier and walked away.

And then I realized that I had 100 ways to teach, but I needed 101, that I couldn’t just stop, I had to find new and innovative ways to reach somebody. And I had to find a new way to reach Marcus. And so I thought it up. I went to a local computer store in San Diego and I said, “Hi, I have a special needs student and he needs a computer and my district has no money so I need it for free, okay?” I wore a really short skirt! I don’t know if he laughed at my legs or my little speech.

I said, “Do you happen to know that I’m a public speaker, and I’ll mention the name of your company, ‘Sun City,’ ‘Sun City,’ ‘Sun City,’ three times in every speech across the nation? Think of the PR possibilities.”

And he said, “Wow, you thought that up yourself?”

I explained why I needed the computer for Marcus, and he agreed to loan it to me for free. I got a study carrel and I put the computer in it. And I said, “Marcus, here’s the deal. You come to class anytime you want for as long as you want. All of your lessons will be on that computer. You do not have to talk to anyone. In fact, you can’t talk to anyone. You have your own little classroom right there.” I said, “You can come for five minutes or five hours. It’s up to you.”

Marcus shrugged his shoulders. But the next day he was there for just a few minutes playing on the computer. I started typing jokes into the computer. I would hear him chuckle. I stayed up at night watching “Letterman.” I got better jokes.  I typed those in. I would hear him chuckle. He started staying longer and longer every day, every week.

One day I got a brainstorm. I took my paycheck and I taped it to the screen of the computer. Marcus laughed so loud I couldn’t stand it. He typed in, “Every
two weeks?”

I cried when I said, “No, once a month!” He laughed louder.

I looked at him and said, “Boy, what are you laughing at? Who do you think you are? This is my classroom. This is not a democracy. I own this space.” I went off. I started yelling and screaming, telling him he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t laugh, he needed to sit in that chair, he needed to be quiet. I turned away.

Guys, I didn’t get more than three feet before I heard it: “Can too!”

I said, “Boy, you’re mine!” I had gotten him so angry, he responded to me.

I met a speech pathologist, a language specialist. I said, “Darling, I need your help.” She said, “Miss, your district has no money.”

I said, “I’m over that.” I said, “I believe in the American system of bartering.” I said, “I must have something you need. I need you to work for this kid.”

And then I realized, and I said, “Look, I don’t want to be offensive. But I’ve tasted your cooking, and you cannot cook.” I said, “Here’s the deal. Your next five dates, I’m the chef. Chicken cordon bleu. Cornish game hens. Lemon meringue pie.” I bought it all and switched pans! I was grading papers, give me a break!

And she came in and taught Marcus tonality, diction, enunciation. She taught stuff that I had never learned in college. I didn’t go to that kind of class. She taught from her specialty. And it was amazing. She would sit in the back of the class with him week after week after week and coach him and teach him. She was so patient.

And one day in the middle of my class—I had thrown out a higher level critical thinking skills question that I was trained to throw out, like “Are you listening?” And all of a sudden, you guys, Marcus raised his hand. He had never raised his hand in my classroom before. I was stunned. And you know what I did? I turned away. I was chicken.

I thought, “Well, what if I call on him? What if he stumbles? What if he does something? Everyone is going to make fun of him and we are back to ground zero. I can’t call on him.”

Then I realized, “How come I’m deciding? Who am I? He’s the one who has got his hand up.” And I turned back and I called on him. Marcus said the answer out loud in front of the entire class. I danced in the streets.

She continued to work with him, continued to coach him. He continued to excel. He started becoming more vocal and more verbal. I started wishing he would be quiet again.

And one day he was seated at my desk and I said, “Marcus, what made you come back? What made you try it at all?”

And he looked across the room to where she was now working with another young person—I was now learning how to sew. You can’t fake that! And he said, “I want to ask her a question.”

I said, “Baby, she’s sitting right there. Go ahead.”

And he took a deep breath. Because she had trained him to do that before he spoke. He visualized all the words he was going to use. She had taught him that, too. And he looked across the room and he said, “How come? How come you worked so long and so hard for me? For free?”

And the woman looked back, and without even blinking, she said, “Marcus, I believe in you. I believe in you.”

Marcus had never heard those words in his lifetime. Have you? Has anyone ever told you they believe in you for what you are and all you have become? Have you ever told your children—not about the milk on the floor, the towels in the bathroom, the dent in the car, have you ever stopped them and said, “The world is hard, but no matter what, you have come from me, and I am here for you, with the purple hair and the razor blades and everything else, I believe in you”? Have you ever told your spouse or significant other? Or do you think they know because you are letting them still live in the house?

Ladies and gentlemen, the power of those words kept Marcus in that classroom, something so simple called “I believe in you.”

Marcus graduated from our program and he went off to college. But his first semester of college, he dropped out. I went to go see him. I said, “What are you doing? You’re messing up my little gold stars.”

He said, “Sandy, I want to be a success.”

And then I realized, wait a minute, I have told my kids that there was only one success: high school, college. How come I get to decide that? What about the workforce?
What about the military? What about Job Corps, Urban Corps, all of those successes, vocational school? I don’t get to decide. And he taught me that lesson.

I said, “Marcus, what is success to you?”

And he said, “I want to join the military.”

I said, “That’s a piece of cake.” We called the recruiter. We sent him off to theCarolinas. See ya!

He did not like boot camp. Mud for breakfast, he didn’t get it! But while Marcus was gone, I was meeting more and more kids on the street. And I had gone to my school board because I needed a special 800 number for my kids on the street. Because I was so young and naive, I used to meet a homeless kid and say, “Hey, I know you don’t want to come to school now, but when you have a minute, call me.” They are like, “Lady, I get a quarter, I ain’t calling you.”

So I realized I needed them to call me for free. So I went to my school board with this chart, with a cost-effective analysis chart with all these colors and numbers. They didn’t add up. They never checked. You know those school boards. I said, “If you let me have an 800 number, a kid on the street is going to call me. We are going to send a van out with a teacher assistant, pick him up, bring him to school. It means you are going to be getting ADA, it means he’s not going to be robbing your house, your car, or dating your daughter.”

They voted unanimously. “Give her the number!”

But I never envisioned what that number would mean. I never envisioned that Marcus could call from boot camp.

And I want to end by telling you about the last time Marcus ever called. I don’t know if you have ever been to a military graduation in your life. If you aren’t patriotic, you become. It is amazing. The parade field is so clean and sparkling you could eat off of it. And the young men they recruit, during these lines, these women are in lines so straight their geometry teacher would be proud. And they got these uniforms so clean and pressed and starched it would stand up without the kid inside.

And there are these stands. There is Grandma and Grandpa, every neighbor in the block, Mom and Dad, are all there. And when the ceremony ends, you guys, the recruits take off their hats and they throw them in the air. And the stands come rushing down. Mom is crying like a fool and she doesn’t even care. She is like, “Oh, look at my baby, ooh.” Grandpa is slipping 10 bucks in his pocket saying, “Now don’t spend that all in one place.”

But you got to turn to Dad. Because Dad stepped away from his recruit, his son or daughter. And all of a sudden he remembers. He remembers the day he stood on that field, and he remembers all of his friends who never came back to stand there again. And he reaches out to touch his son or daughter, his graduate. And they feel his hand on their sleeve, and they turn to their father, and for the first time in many of their lives they see the tears. And they hear, “I knew you could do it. I love you. I believe in you.” And they hug and they kiss. And they laugh and they cry.

But, ladies and gentlemen, on the edge of every parade field in every military base in the United States of America, there is always the same thing: an row of phone booths. And on graduation day they are always empty—except for this day.

There was a young recruit in that phone booth with a clean and pressed uniform, with the receiver pressed against his head so hard it hurt. And he called home. He called the only home he ever knew. He called the public school classroom. I answered the phone that day. And Marcus said, “Sandy! I did it! I did it all for you.”

And I cried like a fool. And I said, “Marcus, I did it. And I did it all for you.” I said, “I believe in you, Marcus.”

And he said the most amazing thing I had ever heard. He said, “Yeah, I believe in me, too... Ma’am.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t tell you what I know. I can’t tell you what I have seen and what I have experienced. It has been the most amazing life, and at times the scariest and most disappointing.

But what America is is about belief—in each other, in children, in hope. It is about never giving up and never giving in. It is about standing with our patriotism, to feed the homeless, to take in a foster child, to spend five more minutes giving a troubled youth our time and our attention.

It is about our belief that each and every child has the right to a quality education and that each and every child, no matter what they say or do, no matter how they look, has the potential to learn.

And it is the belief that you, each and every one of you, has the ability to do it. It is about you. It is about your strength and your courage. Never give up. Never give in. You are America. I honor you. I salute you. And I am never more proud to stand in any group in the world. Thank you.