“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
“That’s nice,” I thought. “I wonder what that woman is like.”
Over the next few weeks, I found out.
Brandon photographed other teachers and administrators at the school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, “a middle school in the under-served neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.”
They all seemed like such strong people. People who were committed to their students and their community, to helping them excel, to making a difference. HONY fans got to meet Ms. Lopez.
A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez. Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”
The power of community
Humans of NY launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the school. One particular program was to send 6th-graders to visit Harvard, to show them where they could be if they wanted to be. The initial goal was $100,000.
The HONY community responded and contributed. Fans even sent flowers to Ms. Lopez.
The current total is $1.4 million. Ms. Lopez announced it at a school assembly.
"As a result of this fundraiser, the entire school will be going to visit Harvard. We’re all going to Harvard!"
The kids went nuts.
In addition to the Harvard program, all funds over $700,000 are going to a scholarship fund available to graduates of Motts Hall Bridges Academy. The fund is named after Vidal, the young boy whose voice started it all. He’s also going to be the first recipient.
"I have something to admit to all of you."
It’s such a beautiful story. Poor kids. Hardworking, committed teachers. Later on, the story inspired TV appearances and a visit with the President. But there was a poignant moment in Ms. Lopez’ talk at the school assembly.
“I have something to admit to all of you. Before all of this happened, I was about to give up. I was broken. I felt like typing my resignation. I told my mother: ‘Mom, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Because I don’t think my scholars care. And I don’t think they believe in themselves enough to care. I’m afraid they don’t think they’re good enough.’ And she told me to pray on it. But I told her, ‘I might be too angry to pray.’ And I know this is hard to believe, because you guys have never seen me break. But I was broken. It’s just like when you see your mom break down. You only see your mom cry when she’s been fighting so hard for you and she doesn’t think you care. That’s how I felt.
But then a couple nights later I was with my daughter at a Broadway show, and we were waiting for the show to start, and I started to get all these text messages from my teachers and former students. And then I saw Vidal’s face pop up on my screen. And my first thought was that something bad had happened. Because that’s normally the case around here when someone’s photo shows up unexpectedly. And the moment I realized that Vidal had said something nice about me, the usher came over and made me turn off my phone. When intermission came, my daughter said: ‘Mom, we’ve got to find out what’s happening.’ So we went and sat in the car. And I read what Vidal said, and I began to read the comments. And tears started coming down my face. Because even though I always tell you that you matter, up until that moment, I didn’t feel like I mattered.”
Who’s your Ms. Lopez? Your Vidal?
Her speech reminded me how little we know about the people who inspire and influence us. From a distance, they may seem happy and strong. Really, though, we have no idea.
But we all have doubts and fears. I certainly do. And a single voice can make a difference. Just this week, as I was thinking about giving up writing for a while, I got a lovely note from someone I don't know well but who said how much she appreciates this blog each Saturday. I was surprised and gratified, and her note made me think of all the people who influence me, and all the notes I could send to tell them that.
Is someone doing work that has influenced you? Let them know. Your voice can make a difference.