Four months ago, I was contacted by American Greetings for a video series on gratitude. Not fully knowing what I was getting into, I was charged to take pause and think the people who had shaped my life. These are the people who I would put on my #ThankList. A #ThankList is a list of people you want to express gratitude toward for helping to shape your life, and it's a step toward a world that's just a little bit nicer. Had it not been for this project, I may have never had this opportunity. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I am grateful to share my #ThankList story.
I always knew that I wanted to be some kind of entertainer. Growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City (Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn a.k.a. Bed-Stuy), my life was not always easy. My mother raised us in a city-owned apartment while on welfare, and my father suffered from drug issues. However, there was love in the home. Quite often, my mother would have movie nights with us. They dealt with themes of the dangers of drugs and what happens to people who make wrong choices. I was mesmerized by seeing the many black faces on the screen.
One night, my mom came home with the movie To Sir, With Love, starring a tall, black man named Sidney Poitier. In this movie, Mr. Poitier played a handsome, well-dressed and educated but stern teacher. As I watched, not only did I notice another inspiring black talent, but I was reminded of someone who I had grown to admire -- Mr. John Walker.
Mr. Walker was my fifth grade teacher. He was cool, sharply dressed, slick and stern. He loved his students and we loved him. I remember getting my report card on the last day of fourth grade and seeing the words "New Teacher: Mr. Walker." I was excited because I'd NEVER had a male teacher before.
From the first day of fifth grade (September 1984), Mr. Walker laid down the class rules. I remember sitting nervously and thinking, How do I get out of his class? I had no idea this class would be one of the most impactful times of my life.
My biological father was in my life and I loved him, but he had drug issues. Mr. Walker became my father away from home. The father who, when you weren't in his presence, you still wanted to make proud. He always brought positivity to our lives. He would give us weekly speeches telling us that we don't have to be products of our environments -- on welfare, using drugs or spending a life in prison. Mr. Walker always told us we could do anything and be anyone we wanted.
The first time I ever left New York City was for a school trip that Mr. Walker arranged for us at a farm. This was an overnight trip. We prepared for months by hosting bake sales to raise funds. I remember Mr. Walker working so hard. He wanted us to experience life outside of Bed-Stuy. It was a trip I'll never forget.
Another day, Mr. Walker said we could put on a play in class. I remember him saying, "Waliek, this is your chance to show us what you got, so if you want the lead part, you better go home and learn it by tomorrow." I ran home and memorized the whole play in one night. I think I did this more for Mr. Walker because he believed in me and gave me that opportunity. One day, the school had a special assembly program and we noticed that Mr. Walker brought a special briefcase with him. As the program began, the host called on him. Our class became fidgety with excitement and curiosity. He opened his special briefcase and pulled out a gold trumpet. Before he started, he dedicated his performance to all the students, but especially our class. It was the most beautiful music I'd ever heard. I was so shocked and amazed. My teacher was not only one of the coolest, best dressed, educated men, but he was also an entertainer -- just like me. I have never in my life been more grateful to be in the presence of Mr. John Walker. I hope that we all encounter a Mr. Walker along the way.
When I created my #ThankList, there wasn't a doubt in my mind that Mr. Walker topped my list. Although he didn't know at the time, Mr. Walker changed the course of my life. Without this opportunity from American Greetings, I would have never had the opportunity to share this story. For that, I am eternally grateful.
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