Detroit, Michigan: AKA Motown, Motor City, Hockeytown, Detroit Rock City. It’s industrious. It’s got grit. And it’s got soul. It’s got the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and…teachers.
Facilitator Gaspar Caro and I recently got the call to conduct interviews with educators for the National Teacher Initiative with Town Hall partner Detroit Public Television, where witnessed how these select teachers seem to embody the city’s reputation. These educators not only participated in StoryCorps; they connected with others in their field by trading stories and showing support and love, as well.
Malcom X Middle School baba (or “teacher” in West African languages) Victor Gibson and his former student, Sakinah Echol, recorded with us in Detroit. Malcom X School is an African-centered institution that reinforces African principles of teaching students respect for elders and respect for learning. Of her time at the school, Sakinah recalled that the teachers at Malcolm X acted like they cared, and everyone knew each other. “Every teacher treated me as their own child. They loved you. We were all equal.”
Despite an earlier path, Victor turned out to be one of those teachers who treated students like Sakinah with such caring respect. During the course of their conversation, Victor revealed that he was a high school dropout, but the Vietnam War draft changed his mind about getting an education. He remembered telling himself, “Either you go to the Vietnam War, go to jail, or you go back to school.”
Even after returning to school, Victor said, there was a time when he still didn’t want to be a teacher. Instead, he wanted to fly airplanes. But after seeing his mother raise seven children and return to school to get a teaching certificate, he began to pay attention to her stories about “raising other people’s chaps” rather than teaching a curriculum. This inspired Victor to not only become a teacher but serve a greater purpose in his students’ lives. “She wasn’t a teacher,” he remembered. “She was an educator, trying to help raise them right and teach them good manners.” And Victor set out to do the same.
He reflected on how his education and career paths have shaped his teaching style. “It took a war to drive me back to school,” he told Sakinah. “I was determined, if I became a teacher, that I would not make it so you were driven by extremes. Like, it’s either that [school] or go sleep in the street.” As a teacher, Victor has discovered that fear and negativity prove ineffective, citing the times it has backfired and made some students more defiant. Instead, Victor chooses to inspire students in the same way his mother did by using African principles that value character and community building.
“Always be an Afri-can and not an Afri-can’t,” Victor advised Sakinah near the end of their conversation. “You can. You will. You must.”