Once upon a time, a woman with a lucrative but boring writing career and a serious case of Empty Nest Syndrome decided on a lark to move halfway across the country to join a tutoring program at a disadvantaged and underperforming high school in the South.
As she looked for an apartment and got to know her new home, people would notice her strange accent and say, “What y’all doin’ here?” And she would explain that she was working for a special program at a place called Booker T. Washington High School. And the reactions were surprising.
If the people were black, they would smile and mention that they’d gone there, or their mother had gone there, or their grandfather had gone there. And we’d have a nice chat.
If the people were white, most of them would look at me like I was from Mars and ask me why. The conversations varied a bit, but the upshot was that I was a silly white girl from California (probably a liberal) who just didn’t understand that some people didn’t want to better themselves. In other words: Why bother?
Sure, they’d admit. There were some black people who did all right. But not those black people. Not at that school.
It was a recurring theme during my time in the South, this idea that “certain people” could never change, didn’t want to learn, and weren’t worth the effort. Even churches focused more on foreign ministries while ignoring the poor in their own backyard. Why bother?
Why bother? Because. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because every child has potential. Because everyone can learn. Because this is the United States of America. Just because.
My time at BTW High School was, unfortunately, all too brief. It was heartbreaking to leave when the grant money ran out. The new principal had such great ideas and we really wanted to be part of them. But I ended up going back to writing and left Memphis forever.
Fast forward five years later. That enthusiastic principal did what no one thought she could do. A school that once graduated just over half of its students now graduates over 80%. A school where only 4% went on to college is now sending 70% of its students on to higher learning. In just five years.
They entered a nationwide contest and today the President of the United States delivered their commencement address. Why? Because somebody bothered.