This is a Fact: Teachers Save Lives.

John King
John King
Sep 1, 2016 · 3 min read

If you haven’t already, I hope you will take time to read “Justin Goes to College,” a four-part series the Department of Education recently published on Medium. It tells the story of 18-year-old Justin Mesteth as he journeys 1,700 miles from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to begin his freshman year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Without giving too much away, I’d like to share why his story resonated with me.

Like Justin, I also suffered a series of personal losses in childhood and adolescence that nearly threatened to throw me off-track. My mother passed away when I was eight, in October of my 4th grade year. Like Justin, I lived after that with my father. My father suffered from then undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and he died when I was twelve.

Like Justin’s father, my father was also an educator who instilled in me during my early years a deep regard for the power of education as a foundation for my future.

And my family, like Justin’s, also was touched by substance abuse. After losing my father, I moved around between family members and schools, including one family member struggling with alcoholism.

Justin and I were each fortunate to have teachers and counselors in our lives who believed in our potential. Justin had Nakina Mills, his college counselor, Dominque Fenton, his junior-year English teacher, and Philomine Lakota, his Lakota language teacher, in his corner.

I had Mr. Osterweil, who was my fourth, fifth and sixth grade teacher at P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, who had us reading the New York Times every day, doing productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland, and exploring the rich cultural resources of New York City like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the ballet.

Indeed, I was fortunate to have wonderful New York City public school teachers who broadened my world. They held us to the highest expectations and gave us the skills and support we needed to not only make it through the challenges of adolescence, but to find our talents and our passion, and to make it to and through college.

Importantly, as an African-American and Latino male student, I was fortunate to have teachers, mentors, and family members who instilled in me a sense of pride in where I came from and hope for the future despite the sometimes negative messages young men of color often receive in our society. In reading Justin’s story, I was struck by the recurring theme of how his Native cultural identity, reinforced by his teachers, gave him strength and pride to overcome anything that life put before him.

In May, I traveled to Pine Ridge for the first time and visited Justin’s school, the Red Cloud Indian School, a Jesuit school that is funded mainly by charitable donations and has a strong track record of sending students to college. I also visited the Wolf Creek School, the largest public elementary and middle school on the reservation, where students and educators struggle with inadequate resources.

At both schools, I heard about the painful impact on young people of the substance abuse, youth suicides, unemployment, and discrimination that affect so many in the community.

The candid conversations I had with students were both heartbreaking and hopeful. On one hand, I was struck by how many of the young people growing up on the reservation don’t get the benefits that come with being a teenager, because they are too busy supporting their families, and are often dealing with trauma at home and in the community. On the other hand, there were students like Justin, who are determined to, as this series puts it, “write [their] own narrative” and create a better future for their community.

As a society, we need to ensure that every student gets the excellent, well-rounded education, world-class teachers and strong support system that Justin benefited from at Red Cloud.

I fear that for every Justin who is breaking through the barriers, there are nine others who will not be as fortunate and whose stories may be told. That’s on all of us — and we can and must change it.

John King

Written by

John King

Former Social Studies. Currently Secretary of Education.

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