My story, my SELF™, Part II

Our first home in Willow Grove, Pa., April 1956: Father Howard, little sister Linda, and me in our Sunday best.

In my last blog I discussed choices my parents made that allowed me to live and have a chance for a successful life.

In this blog I talk about challenges in school I overcome because others opened doors for me and I was willing to work hard after the doors were opened.

At the end of second grade my teacher recommended I be in the middle third grade reading group because she felt I was not bright enough to be in the top reading group. Luckily my third grade teacher disagreed, called in my parents, and told me that if I stayed current with the middle reading group and caught up to the top reading group she would transfer me to the top group.

The transfer happened.

It happened because my parents supported me, my third grade teacher opened a door, and I was willing to work hard.

Without my third grade teacher opening a door and my parents support, I could have become an at-risk student getting in trouble in school instead of being challenged by my schoolwork because I did not do boredom well.

But my elementary school challenges did not end there.

In sixth grade I was a straight A student but my teacher recommended I be in a middle roster of classes in seventh grade instead of a roster of top students.

As my parents had twice before, first when I was on life support and again when I went to a segregated school, they fought for me and challenged the teacher’s recommendation. The teacher said I was recommended for the lower roster because it was a well-known fact that “Negroes” reached their potential by eighth grade and if I were in a roster with other straight A students it would be a waste of a top roster slot.

My parents changed the teacher’s mind and another door was opened.

The support of my parents and third grade teacher opened doors for me. And I strode through each door, strengthened by their belief in me – a belief that encouraged me to take on greater challenges and earn degrees from Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While my parents and third grade teacher opened doors for me, I realized there are many students who are not that lucky. I realized that without advocates, a student’s progress in school and life can be derailed and/or blocked by social pressures, well-meaning but clueless and/or biased teachers, and/or by the student’s efforts to relieve the boredom of their classes or cope with a fear of failure or being overwhelmed. And as I challenged myself to achieve throughout my education, I often thought about the many students who were not given the foundation of a belief in themselves as I was.

I realized that without advocates, many students could be at risk of having learning and lives derailed and doors closed forever – and this inspired my greatest learning journey: Creating the SELF Empowerment Program™ (SELF™), so all students could have the tools for success my parents and third grade teacher gave me.

In the next blog I will discuss some of my challenges and triumphs in middle and high school, like overcoming bigotry, and how they helped to shape my thinking about the need for programs to help at-risk students.

Comments (1)

  1. Janice Hoffman


    Wow!!! What marvelous parents you had, and what love and encouragement surrounded you – thanks to them and others along the way. Interesting and frightening how any one seemingly small thing could have changed things for the worse. Your success is also in part due to your own drive and aspirations. Of course, as Hillary wrote, it takes a village. I’m with you 100% that advocacy is a necessity. Someone has to take personal interest and responsibility for guiding, encouraging, intervening where necessary, and holding accountable both teachers and student. A student who has an advocate and is able to see, appreciate, utilize, and hold onto that valuable resource is most fortunate. Congratulations, Howard, on overcoming so much, doing what it takes, and becoming the person you are today. How wonderful that you and Sheila are paying it forward in such a vital way for students at-risk. Bless you for all you are doing to make a real difference.

    The older I get the more I’m realizing that advocacy is necessary again to varying degrees for every person, especially as we age more and are less able. I think I see people more easily dismissed with age, diminishing physical presence, and decreasing mental capacity. When hospitalized or dealing with the health care community it is imperative and optimal to have someone to both advocate and accompany. This is totally out of the scope of your work, but I see some parallels in advocacy for both the young and the old and now and then in between. Yes, Hillary, life takes a village! It’s about love. Thank you, Howard, for sharing your story. Wow!

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