Recently, the story of my parents, Renate and Charles Cole, went viral after I tweeted on social media: “My parents went back to college together and they graduated today. Together #salute.” After years of battling drug addiction, it wasn’t easy but from watching my own education journey they also knew it wasn’t impossible.
HERE’S HOW MY STORY INSPIRED THEM TO GO BACK TO COLLEGE
I attended more than 10 schools before the fifth grade and I had an attitude problem in each and every classroom.
I was born in Chicago to young, drug-addicted parents that had a penchant for moving and staying in and out of jail. I moved from Chicago to Paducah, Kentucky to stay with my grandmother and then back to Chicago and then back to Paducah, you get the point: I moved a lot. Which also meant I transferred schools a lot. I was always the new kid trying to catch up on coursework, make new friends, all the while knowing that I wouldn’t be at that school for long.
When my grandmother passed, my father rounded me and my siblings up, and we moved to Oakland, where my father’s sister lived. At the time, my mother was in jail, so the rest of us hopped on a Greyhound and took the three-and-a-half day bus ride to the Bay. My mother eventually joined us.
Despite the move to Oakland, my parents would continue to struggle with drugs, and as a result we lived in several shelters.
THE TEACHER WHO CHANGED IT ALL
Once I got to junior high, I had an algebra teacher named Mr. Brown—this tall Black dude with an imposing stature.
But he was able to connect with me and build my confidence in a way that no other teacher had. He was hard on me. He told me I was responsible for me, no one else was. I had to choose success. I had to choose to be different than what I saw.
At the end of the school year, I got the highest grade in his class, and it felt amazing. After that, I never looked back.
THE COMMUNITY THAT MADE ME WHO I AM
The hard truth is that the majority of teachers I had either couldn’t or just didn’t try to reach me.
Fortunately, a lot of my education came from folks in my community—like my barber shop, my church, the donut shop, the bookstores and my friends. For instance, my mom had a friend who was big on Black Power and understanding where we, as Black people, come from. She inspired me to read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that changed my life.
I learned early that education was going to be my way out of poverty. With the help of Mr. Brown and my community I saw that doing well in school could open other opportunities.
North Oakland helped me. It raised me. It taught me that I was resilient. It taught me that even when public education “failed me,” I could learn how to navigate the system and use it to create a better life for myself.
And that’s what I did.
That’s why I work within education now, to help other students like me overcome their circumstances. I know the impact a great education can have on students, their families, their community and the world. We all we got, so I’ll fight for my people until I no longer can.
Too often, students of color and students who face challenging circumstances don’t receive the support and encouragement they need to succeed. They are held to lower standards because of a Belief Gap between what society believes they can achieve and what they truly are capable of when we believe in them.
Visit BecauseTheyCan.com to find out how to close the Belief Gap.
Charles Cole III is an educator focused on the advancement of all youth of color, but more specifically black males. Charles blogs at One Oakland United, Education Post, Citizen Education and Huffington Post, as well as other outlets.