My first grade teacher, Mrs. Shelling, was a young woman with short blonde hair and a smile that could calm down a classroom of 30 screaming six-year-olds. She would greet each of us at the doorway each morning and give us a hug goodbye every afternoon.
Mrs. Shelling taught me to love learning. I’d ask her for extra homework and excitedly pull out worksheets and puzzles she gave me when I got home. She transformed Little Tor Elementary from a school into a sanctuary and instilled a passion for education within me.
In later years, my relationship with education became a bit of a frenemy situation. In my first year of high school, I was brutally bullied because I was so shy, and it made me realize how many kids have feared school their whole lives, walking through the hallways with chills up their backs.
I wanted to fix this, so I started a makeshift website and called it The Validation Project. Four years later, we’re an international organization working with thousands of kids across the globe to solve social justice issues and work hard to make sure every child has a school that supports them enough for them to turn their dreams into realities.
Through leading The Validation Project, I’ve been lucky enough to visit schools across the country and the world.
I watched a poetry slam in a New York City public school where a teenage mother shared how her 11th grade English class taught her she has worth. I toured a KIPP public college-preparatory school in Linden, Ohio, where the mortality rate for infants is the highest in the state, and yet this school has a 95% graduation rate. I watched a little girl read Torah for the first time in a Jewish private school in New York. I played soccer until sundown with schoolgirls in a village in Myanmar as one of them told me her dream of becoming a teacher. I read with refugee preschool students in Krakow, Poland, and I talked about kindness with fifth graders right back at Little Tor Elementary.
No matter what classroom or country, what state or student, education has the ability to give a child extreme power or extreme pain.
When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary, the first thing I felt was fear. DeVos is dangerous. Not only does she have no experience in public education, she has spent her career trying to undermine it. She advocates hard for private schools, where she grew up and where she sent her kids.
I recognize that in some cases, a public school cannot provide the support a student needs. DeVos’s danger comes from her wholehearted support of the private side, doing her work from the perspective of someone who has not once learned or taught in public school. Someone who does not know what it is like to be in a public school can not know the power it holds for so many — and the issues existing in many that a Secretary of Education should be knowledgeable enough to take the right course of action in fixing.
On top of that, DeVos’s advocacy has been purely pen and paper: she is a checkbook lobbyist, never having been required to work with people whom she disagrees with. As secretary, DeVos will be expected to build, not tear down; build trust, build coalitions, all while surrounding herself with people from different classes, places and opinions.
The truth is, we don’t know what DeVos will mean for American public, private and charter education. One thing is for sure: DeVos did not accept Trump’s offer to simply sustain the status quo. The Education Department will move pretty rapidly to reform how our country educates its kids. Many senators fear DeVos will not preserve the federal government’s role in funding low-income schools and guaranteeing access to education for children with disabilities.
When I think about our country’s kids, I think about “the next:” the next girl to graduate high school when everyone told her she couldn’t, the next immigrant student who deserves an ESL program that provides them with equal access to the American dream, the next child who does not identify as the gender they were assigned and searches for support in their seventh grade classroom, the next kid in the Bronx who could invent the next Facebook if they had a teacher who believed in them and funding for a coding class, the next years of their lives that could make or break their belief in themselves, the next generation that deserves more than a Secretary who only supports students that fit into her cookie-cutter mold.
We cannot count on her. It is our responsibility now more than ever to stand up, speak up and keep resisting. What will you do next?