“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But, if I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?” —Hillel

Lynchburg City Schools 2013 Convocation

August 19, 2013

Thank you, Superintendent Brabrand, for inviting me to be here today as part of the Lynchburg City Schools 2013 Convocation. It is an honor to be here with all of Lynchburg’s great educators and educational support personnel as we prepare for a new school year!

As I reflected on what I would say today, I thought about the people we meet as we walk the pathways of life. We see thousands, tens of thousands of people. The vast majority of those people are like a passing light in the night; we do not actually meet them. Others we see or perhaps meet but get to know only briefly. We may vaguely remember their faces, but don’t really know who they are. Still others we meet. Maybe we work or socialize with them or go to school or church with them. Most of this group we know only casually. And then there are a handful of people we meet who become an indelible part of our lives, such as our teachers and other school personnel.

Although I know there are other school personnel in the room, allow me to reflect on all collectively as “teachers.” Our teachers teach us to read and write, but they do more than teach us what is in a textbook. They help us define who we are and who we have the potential to become—who we should be. They help us prepare ourselves for challenges we never imagine we will face in life. Through education, teachers teach us to understand who we are as individuals, as well as how to bond together, to build a “sense of family” and community.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being in Lynchburg for the All-Dunbar High School Reunion, which was attended by about 500 former “Dunbarians,” including at least 15 from the class of 1958—my class. (I know some of you had not been born then!) While I was there, I had a chance to chat with some of my classmates about their experiences in Lynchburg City Schools. We talked about how our principals, counselors, and teachers—whether at Yoder or Payne Elementary or Dunbar High School—always pushed us to excel, to be the best we could be; how they refused to accept mediocrity; how they encouraged us to think outside of the box. We talked about how we were encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities such as football, basketball, and tennis as well as cheerleading and the band, but the primary emphasis was always on academics. We shared stories about how we competed against each other to see which senior homeroom had the most students on honor roll or in the National Honor Society, the math club or student newspaper, as well as key players on varsity sports teams. In other words, we challenged each other to excel!

The teachers who taught us were well prepared to meet the challenges of teaching and learning, despite the fact that often our classrooms lacked the resources needed. They helped us to overcome the challenges we faced during that period of high levels of illiteracy, racial segregation, poverty, gender bias, and other barriers. They taught us to maximize our potential through education, to look beyond where we were to where we could be—and helped us earn the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and determination to dream and then to realize our dreams.

I remember Ms. Henry, my fourth-grade teacher, teaching us the value of discipline—not as something negative, but as a positive trait to have. For example, she taught the importance of making sure our homework was completed and submitted on time, the importance of integrity and due diligence.

I remember Ms. Jordan, our English teacher, who made me write and rewrite a paper five times. (That was her way of disciplining me for talking in class.) Unbeknownst to me, she took that paper and submitted it as part of a city essay contest. I won third prize, the first time I had ever won anything!

I remember Mrs. Watson and then Ms. Chafin, Mr. Moultrie, and Mr. Thornhill, who taught me business skills that I still use today. But, equally important, they also taught me the value of a strong work ethic.

I remember Mr. Clark, who helped me appreciate science and how it impacts our lives continuously. He taught me how to develop scientific investigations and be a critical thinker.

I remember Mrs. Morris, who taught us physical fitness, but more importantly, how to be team players, working together collegially and respecting ourselves as well as each other.

I remember Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Womack, who taught us about the history of America, but also about our legacy as African Americans. They taught us about our roles and responsibilities as citizens in our democracy and to understand the global society in which we live.

The list could go on and on. I am sure that if each of us stopped for a moment and reflected on our era as students, wherever we went to school, there would be at least one teacher, counselor, or other school employee to whom we would give testimony and thank for helping us be where we are today. And, yes, there were some we thought were too hard, too demanding, or not caring enough, who believed that their job was to teach the subject content not the whole child.

Sometimes people ask me why I decided to become an educator, a teacher. I always tell them I became a teacher because of the teachers who taught me and made a difference in my life. I was not the easiest child to teach or to discipline. I had talent, but because my family was poor, because of my circumstances, I often questioned why I should bother to stay in school.

I remember so many of my teachers, as well as our principal, Mr. Seay, and the custodians and cafeteria workers inspiring and encouraging us to be demanding of ourselves, telling us that we could learn and we could excel academically. I must confess that at the time, I did not appreciate their advice. Often, it is not until 5, 10, or 15 years later when we look back on our lives that we understand and appreciate the advice educators share and the difference they have made and continue to make in our lives. Thank God I stayed in school and trusted the wisdom that was instilled in me regarding the value of education and what a difference it could make in my life!

I remember once when I was teaching in Alexandria, one of my students said to me, “Why are you trying so hard to get us to learn? Don’t you know we are from the ghetto, and kids from the ghetto are not supposed to be able to learn?” I was shocked and wanted to know who had told her that. She responded, “Everyone knows that—but you!” Then I told her my story and what the teachers in Lynchburg had done for me—how they had refused to accept a defeatist attitude, insisted that I learn and meet high academic standards, and as a result helped transform my life. I am happy to say that that young lady, as well as the others in her class, stayed in school and graduated.

That young lady reflected who I, Mary Alice Franklin Hatwood Futrell, had been. My nickname was “See Mo”—see more holes than you do clothes; I was also nicknamed “Boney Marony” and “Skinny Minny.” I was from a poor family, in a single-parent home, and did not truly get to know my father until I was an adult. My stepfather died when I was 5 years old. Mama had a sixth-grade education (she had to quit school when she was 12 to help raise her younger sibling after both of her parents died), raised two children of her own and three foster children, and was a maid and a cleaning woman. We grew up on Clay Street, on Diamond Hill, one of the rough sides of the city. We still lives there, but it is not bad like it used to be.

I started working when I was about 11 or 12 years old cleaning churches (St. Paul and Fort Hill Baptist Church), as well as the Dairy Queen on Ft. Avenue and people’s homes. I kept working those jobs all the way through high school, as well as during the summer when I was an undergraduate student.

I tried out for the cheering squad at Dunbar but did not make it. However, I kept practicing and finally made it the second semester and eventually became the captain of the squad. I was not so lucky regarding the school’s choir. Three of us sang a song and then the director asked me to sing a solo. When I finished, he thanked me and said that I would get a call. I never got the call—and still can’t sing today.

As a student, I was placed in the vocational/business education program although I wanted to be in the academic program. At the end of my sophomore year, I passed a statewide test and scored in the top 10%. In my junior year, I was transferred to the academic program, and later, based upon my grade-point average, I was inducted into the National Honor Society. I remember my mother being very strict regarding grades. She refused to accept anything less than a B. If I got a C, I got in trouble—and you did not want to get in trouble with Mama. Mama made sure my homework was completed and turned in on time. And, yes, she checked our report cards. She encouraged us to earn a good education. Mama told us that people could take a lot of things away from us, but no one could take away our education. She did not want us to have to spend our lives doing the kind of work she had to do; she wanted a better life for us. My teachers basically told me the same thing: that with a good education, I could open doors I never dreamed could be opened. They did not judge me; they taught me to excel academically and also to believe in myself. They saw potential in me that I did not see in myself.

One of the other fond memories I have about Lynchburg and education is the sense of community that prevailed. Despite the rough neighborhood in which I grew up, people came together and reached out to help each other, especially the children. Our neighbors made sure my sisters (Ann, Marianne, Patricia, and Caffie) and I were not “goofing off” after school. They checked to see if we had done our homework and our chores before coming out to play. They also inquired about our grades at the end of each grading period. You did not talk “smart mouth” to your neighbors when they asked you about school.

Today, times are no less challenging. We live in a very complex, multicultural, multilingual, highly technological global society. As everyone knows, we are living in a period of serious economic downturn. When Lynchburg City Schools was educating students back in the 1950s, we were competing with the people across town or across the state of Virginia. The generation that followed us was competing with their colleagues across the United States. Students today are and will be competing with people from all over the world. Competition has always been and always will be our tempest.

Other countries are facing similar challenges. As I have traveled the globe, visiting more than 50 countries, I can assure you those that are excelling are doing so because they are placing more emphasis on education, investing in their future—and not just for a few, but for all of their citizens.

As the 21st century continues to unfold, we need to ask ourselves: Why do we educate and how should we educate in the future? I do not mean simply teaching the basics or teaching to the test, but for what purpose we educate and how we prepare for our journey as citizens, workers, and lifelong learners in this new millennium. Allow me to share some statistics with you that might help everyone better understand why answering these questions is so important:

1. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, today’s learners will change jobs 10 to 14 times before they reach the age of 38. (I had only changed jobs three times by the time I was 38!)

2. The Labor Department also says that 1 out of 4 workers today is working for a company that did not exist a decade ago. We are preparing kids for jobs that do not exist and for technologies that have not been invented.

3. It is predicted that 85% of all new jobs created will require some postsecondary education. Does that mean everyone will need a college degree? No! But it means everyone must be prepared to be continuous learners, especially in complex environments. In the future, a high school diploma will not be sufficient for people to be competitive in tomorrow’s job market.

4. This school year, 2013-14, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 57 million students will enroll in our elementary and secondary schools—an increase of approximately 2 million over the last 5 years. Of those new students, 80% are projected to come from poor and minority families.

5. Finally and equally important, if the United States is to maintain its leadership role in the world, we must educate every child and educate him or her well. We are a nation of 300 million living in a world of 8 billion people. The nations that will be leaders in the future will be those that have a highly educated citizenry!

We as a nation cannot afford not to educate all of our children and educate them well. We as citizens must be prepared for continuous learning and to adapt in a constantly changing environment, especially the workplace. So the question becomes: Will the young people who will soon enter your classrooms, the future graduates of Lynchburg City Schools, be prepared for lifelong learning and the complex, competitive workforce of tomorrow?

When I started eighth grade in 1953, there were approximately 180 students in my class. In 1958, only 87 of us graduated. Less than 50% of us walked across this stage to receive our diplomas. (Dunbar’s auditorium was not large enough, so we always held our graduation event here at E. C. Glass High School, then the all white high school.) The 87 who graduated did so because our teachers, families, and communities succeeded in instilling in each of us the value of education. As one of those graduates, I know that if it had not been for Lynchburg City Schools, I would not have been one of the 87. Nor would I have had the educational foundation that allowed me to have the honor and privilege of graduating from Virginia State College and the George Washington University; allowed me to be an educator for 51 years, including being a high school teacher in Alexandria, VA, and a professor and dean of the Graduate School of Education at the George Washington University; and allowed me to be the president of the Virginia Education Association, the National Education Association, and Education International, which is in Belgium. But, remember, it did not start in Alexandria, VA, or Washington, DC, or Belgium or the 50 countries I have visited; it started right here in Lynchburg, in this city’s schools!

By the way, what most of you probably do not know is that not only did my Lynchburg City Schools teachers help me throughout elementary and secondary school, but they helped me be able to go to college. When the scholarship committee decided not to award me a scholarship, although I was in the top 10% of my graduating class, I assumed that was the end of my dream to earn a college degree. The night I graduated, Mr. Seay, our principal, announced that there was a special scholarship that would be given. He called my name, and I walked across this stage and he gave me a check for $1,500 to go to college. I was shocked to receive it. I was told that the teachers who taught me went out throughout the city to businesses, churches, and individuals and told them they had a student they wanted to send to college, but that the student did not have the financial means to pay the tuition. Those were the same teachers who had encouraged me to apply to college, which I did even though I had no money to attend. I just wanted to get them to stop urging me to do so. That $1,500 allowed me to get on the bus and go to Virginia State College. Today $1,500 probably would not pay for one three-credit course, but in 1958 it paid for a full year of tuition at Virginia State College, which then helped me fund the rest of my college education by giving me a job and helping me get financial aid.

If it had not been for teachers, administrators, and the staff of Lynchburg City Schools—Yoder and Payne Elementary as well as Dunbar High School—I would not be standing here today sharing my story with you. And, I assure you, there are more “Mary Alice’s” who have similar stories to tell. Being poor does not mean that one does not have potential or is unable to learn!

When you open the doors to your classrooms next week, look at your students. How many future educators, engineers, doctors, singers, lawyers, chefs, corporate leaders, even future mayors or governors are seated in your classrooms waiting for their talents and skills to be cultivated so they can realize their potential, their dreams? Teach them, but also encourage them to dare to dream!

Today, we—Lynchburg City Schools and school districts all across America—must do everything possible from preschool through high school and beyond to ensure that our children are educated to achieve not only their maximum potential to be productive, responsible citizens, but also the potential of our nation. They are Lynchburg’s future, America’s future.

The question is, Can we maximize this time of opportunity and transform our education system to ensure that every child has access to a quality education? I believe that we can! We’ve done it before, transforming the system from agrarian to being more responsive to our industrial economy at the turn of the 20th century. And, we must do it again. The challenges are formidable, but not impossible to overcome. By working together at all levels of our education system and with the support of our communities, we can and will educate today’s children and future generations to have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to strengthen our democracy as well as compete in our evolving global economy.

Each and every one here today—the superintendent, school leaders, teachers, and educational support staff—thank you for your personal and professional commitment to sustain this successful, high-quality education system as the bedrock of Lynchburg, my hometown. Thank you again for the education you implanted in my sisters and me as well as the rest of my family. By the way, Lynchburg City Schools’ legacy continues to thrive in us: my nephew, Lavaar, and my niece, Nikia, just earned their master’s degrees. My niece, Skylar, who will enter her junior year at Old Dominion University, has been on the dean’s list every semester. (She is doing better than her aunt Mary Alice, who did not make the dean’s list until the first semester of her sophomore year.)

I am here today standing on your shoulders and the shoulders of your predecessors. Keep Lynchburg City Schools’ legacy alive! Continue to reach out to Lynchburg’s children and families, to enable this generation and future generations to have the same hope and determination to excel that you instilled in Mary Alice (See Mo), in each of us, and then educate the children so they can realize their dreams, their potential.

Let me close with these words. When I was growing up, I was taught that when the door of opportunity opens, you shouldn’t be afraid to walk through it. But when you walk through that door, reach back, take someone’s hand, and help him or her to walk through the door of opportunity as well. By ensuring that all children—regardless of their circumstances—have a quality education, we are enabling them to personally open the doors of opportunity and to successfully walk through them. Let’s also encourage and enable them to help someone else do the same!

May God continue to bless each of you, and have a wonderful school year! Thank you.




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