02/27/2015 11:09 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2015

When We Hand Down the Magic, Children and Teachers Succeed

How do you repay those who have changed your life, to the point of saving it? Dr. Dorothy Strickland, my doctoral advisor at Columbia University's Teachers College, knows.
Dr. Strickland once asked that question of the late-great Dr. Bernice Cullinan, her doctoral advisor at New York University: "Bee, what can I ever do to repay you for all you have done for me?"
The reply: "There is nothing that you can or should do for me. Simply 'Hand down the magic.'" 
Those four, clear, simple words tell us how best to recognize the gifts of knowledge and mentoring that have guided the life trajectories of so many people.
There are several variations on this theme, the most recent being "Pay It Forward," the philosophy of the 2000 film and Catherine Ryan Hyde novel that became a worldwide movement. People "pay it forward" when they respond to kindness by being kind to another person. 
Yet to me, "Hand Down the Magic" means more -- not merely demonstrating one kindness, but thousands of them; not of the thrill of one day, but day after day; to the point where magic defines the relationship between two people.
When I think of "Hand Down the Magic," I think of teachers, and the artistry they employ as they pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the ages.
Certainly, this is how I feel about Dr. Strickland and other professors who guided my development.  Their powerful words lifted me up, so I could face down the demons behind so many other words I'd heard throughout my life -- words which, from time to time, demeaned my Black race and intelligence. 
Walt Whitman wrote: "One word can pour such a flood through the soul." These are torrents I, like so many others who have been stereotyped based on their race or cultural background, know too well. In reflecting on my TedX Talk about growing up in the Civil Rights era and the many struggles I had "...experienced, survived, and triumphed," Dr. Strickland added this postscript: "I know there were [and are] many others who did not even survive." 
Teachers and mentors can have a magical impact on learning, but being a student can be just as exquisite. The roles of teacher and student are not as distinct as portrayed. Teaching and learning go both ways.
Teachers "hand down the magic" when they refuse to place learners in proverbial boxes labeled "smart," "not so smart," "average," "dumb" or "stupid," and recognize that failure is integral to learning and deserves to be celebrated. "Fail UP," Tavis Smiley writes in his latest book, quoting Nobel Prize-winning playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett: 
"Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."  
Yet failure is too often ridiculed in classrooms or called out with a devastating blow. Frustrated teachers have been known to tell young children that they will never succeed. Many children eagerly shoot their hands up in the classroom, only to shrink into the shadows after giving the wrong answer, when teachers playfully mock their response. This mocking might be meant in humor, but it can hurt a student -- Whitman's flood through the soul -- words matter and emotions can be shattered.  
Yet the tide also flows in the other direction. In classrooms throughout this country, thousands of teachers recognize the unique talents and gifts of their students every day, leaving joy and confidence in their wake. Learning is a reciprocal arrangement between teachers and students.  Each learning from each other.  As part of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education professional development, teachers and students work together to unlock their potential.  Shared professional development helps students see teachers as the vulnerable people they are -- people who try and fail on occasion, just as students do. Teachers don't have all the answers, nor should they.
In "Smarter: It's Something You Become" co-published with the NUA, a Newark Public Schools student put it this way:
"S -- Scholarship you can earn being smart
M -- More knowledge each day is becoming smart.
A   -- An art of knowing
R  --  Ready to learn
T   --  Terrific people are smart"

 -- Alex Lopez, Hawkins Street School
Writing for NUA's Student Voice initiative, Christian Caban at Newark's Ridge Street School observed: "[Keeping an open mind about learning] reminds me of what I learned in science class about Isaac Newton's three laws of motion; specifically, the third law, which states, 'For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction.' This implies that for everything you do there is a positive or negative consequence.  [So] if you care about your education you can become successful and that is a positive consequence." 
Let's embrace the power of learning and "hand down the magic" to those outstretched hands and minds, yearning to be awakened.
I will forever be grateful for the gifts that Dr. Strickland and others, such as the late Dr. Fritz Ianni at Teachers College, Columbia University, and professors at the Universidad de las Americas, City University of New York in Staten Island, and Dutchess Community College provided me.  And I celebrate all those who have mentored me, such as the late Dr. Asa Hilliard III of Georgia State University. I will work to "hand down the magic," as they did for me.  
May all the readers do the same. As Dr. Strickland told me: "It is the most important legacy we have." 


Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

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