When I was two months old I was on life support. My temperature was 108 degrees. The doctors told my parents they could end my life…since the most they could hope for was a child with stunted growth and severe brain damage.
My parents chose to continue life support.
Their decision to ignore the doctor’s advice and keep me alive was motivated, in part, by my mother’s memory of having to wear leg braces as a child due to rickets, being told she would never be able to walk normally, and proving the doctors wrong by becoming a runner on her school’s track team.
So, my parents took me home and loved me, nurtured me, and worked hard to create a positive normal life for me.
By the time I was three years old, my parents managed, through hard work and personal sacrifice, to move out of the Philadelphia projects and buy a home in Willow Grove, PA in Abington Township, a suburb of Philadelphia. When I was a teenager, they told me they moved to Willow Grove, PA so I would not be subject to gang pressures growing up in the projects.
My father, a World War II veteran, did not finish college but knew how things worked, and taught me plumbing, carpentry and landscaping, and involved me in sports so I would have a well-rounded personality. My mother, a teacher at a majority black middle school in Philadelphia, taught me to work for my dreams, love justice, and believe in God as we walked a mile each way, every Sunday for three years, to catch a bus to Philadelphia to attend a black Lutheran church.
While the bus into Philadelphia allowed us to maintain a connection to our faith community, my mother was upset by buses that divided our residential community.
The latter buses took the white children in our community to a distant elementary school, while the black children in the community walked to the local elementary school. When my mother noticed this, she and my dad engaged the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to help them integrate the schools halfway through my first-grade year.
Without my parents’ actions, I may not have lived to write this blog, or I may have been pressured to become part of a gang, or I may have been educated in a segregated school where many of the teachers had a very limited view of the abilities of “Negro” students. Instead, thanks to the choices and actions of my parents, I was able to earn an Engineering degree at Princeton, a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard and a Master’s in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Years later, I realized that my parents’ willingness to disagree with the doctors’ recommendations and take me home and nurture me, and their willingness to fight to integrate Abington schools gave me a core element of the SELF Empowerment Program™ (SELF™ ) – a strong belief in the ability of all young people to achieve their dreams and be successful individuals.
In my next blog, I will talk about challenges in elementary school I could not overcome on my own. I will also talk about how after doors were opened for me, I worked hard to succeed and how these experiences shaped my thinking about the need for programs to help at-risk students*. Thinking that eventually led to my creating SELF™.
*“At-risk students” are defined as students who are below grade level in mathematics.