John Thompson's Learning Story


I got my start in education as a hiking counselor for inner city children where I gained the insights that can only be learned in the middle of the night with tent mates or sharing the challenges of nature. Not having biological kids of my own, I got as much out of the experience as the kids. I’ll never forget the thrill of guiding children on a fossil hunt, and the cry of joy of a little girl “I just found a dinosaur nose! It still has blood on it!” After crack and gangs hit my neighborhood, I became an inner city high school teacher and completely fell in love with the job. When a kid transferred into my class from the deep South he asked whether I had Black kids. “You’re always talking about ‘ma kids'” said the student as he mocked my Okie accent. From all over the room came laughter and the reply, “D.T. has hundreds of Black kids!” Then the class clown added, “Yeah, D.T. is a playa!” The deep bonds with my students were the only reason why I put up with the indignities that are routinely dumped on teachers, as well as the fearful “culture of compliance” that afflicts public schools. My principal, and others, did not care for my love of playing basketball with the students, and she hated their practice of calling me “D.T.,” not “Doctor Thompson.” And of course, there were plenty of warnings against dangerous practices ranging from breaking up gang fights to leading Socratic discussions into controversial areas to driving students home after games. After six years, I could not resist the itch to hike the Grand Canyon with some students. So, I kept my principal out of the loop, ignored the naysayers within the school, wooed the parents of a couple of my most unforgettable kids, and got their permission for the adventure. Mohamed Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been home schooled. Mohamed’s modest dress, family rules, and studiousness had made it more difficult for him to be accepted in school venues like the basketball court. Brandy Clark, on the other hand, was the darling of every adult in the building. A survivor of some of the worst generational poverty and abuse in Oklahoma’s “Little Dixie” and southern California, Brandy was the classic over-achiever. I believe she was the last native-born African-American at our school to pass an Advanced Placement exam, and after one year of drama she was a finalist for a scholarship at Oklahoma City University, the state’s premier private institution. The road trip debates were endless. Being part Mexican, Filipino, and Chickasaw Indian, Brandy would also define herself as “multi-generational multi-cultural” when appropriate or when it would annoy her Black friends. And such a position definitely upset Mohamed, who defined himself only as “Black,” saying he was “just keeping it real.” Since that was a phrase that drove me up the wall, I jumped in on that part of the debate. Hiking out of the Grand Canyon, however, Mohamed reclaimed his “Indian roots,” saying that they explained his ability to scoot back and forth and discovering one whole new world after another. Mohamed would rush up breathlessly, “I just met some Sikhs! Sikhs are monotheists in the Punjab who believe in …” Or, “this Polish family just taught me …!” The thin air and the hike was tougher on Brandy. During a break when we were close enough to the top to see that victory was assured, she blurted out, “nobody has ever done that before!” Nobody in her family, Brandy clarified, had ever encouraged her as I had as she struggled up the canyon. She had been continually warned against the trip because hiking was “just something that White people did,” and she wouldn’t be able to keep up. My young partners also sought clues about the secret lives of White people, and that gave me the opportunity to tell, with a straight face, why my people refuse to bring an extra pair of underwear on extended hikes. The punch line, “you all on the right change with you all on the left” brought howls of derision, giving me a chance to reply “just keeping it real!” Brandy was supposed to be memorizing her lines for the scholarship audition, but on the trip and afterwards she slacked off on that task. Procrastination was so unlike Brandy, and her answers were so unsatisfactory that a few weeks after the trip I made her schedule an appointment at the university. As we pulled out of the school parking lot Brandy said “D.T., you are going to yell. I missed my audition. … I can’t compete with those White girls from the rich schools with years of experience. …” “You’re damned right I’m going to yell and yell. … But by the time we pass 63rd Street, I’ll calm down, we’ll get it together, and you will win that scholarship!” Sure enough, Brandy swept them off their feet. The next four years were not easy, but O.C.U. was only a mile from our house. Brandy and her friends were frequent visitors, and we shared both the triumphs and the challenges. Brandy even forgave me for getting her lost on a hike when poison ivy scarred up her ankle tattoo. She graduated with a degree in Drama and Education and then taught in a Blue Ribbon Core Knowledge middle school. A few years later, Mohamed and I were reunited by chance on a playground basketball court. He had attended a university in New York, as well as our historically Black college. Brandy, my wife (dubbed “Grandma Canoli” by Brandy), and I continued to grow into a family. On a trip to the in-laws on the East Coast, Brandy got a close view of both Reform and Orthodox Jewish family life. Afterwards, she became determined to teach in the projects of Bedford Stuyvesant, but that meant she needed to pass some more accreditation tests. So on the eve of her examinations, we had a long soulful conversation. We laughed about the way Brandy’s mother would talk to me about “your daughter,” sometimes using the phrase as a compliment and sometimes not. But my only regret, I replied, was in saying “I love you like a daughter” and having to use the qualifying words “like a.” The next morning as I dropped Brandy off at the test site, she introduced me simply as “my dad.”