Shadrack Boakye is a former READ 180 Award winner who overcame early struggles in school as a refugee from war-torn Liberia with the help of READ 180 and his teacher, Ms. Murphy. Shadrack has gone on to become an accomplished debate champion, public speaker, writer, playwright, director, and performer, and he is president of . He recently won a New York Emmy Award for The Truth’s musical, "Viva Africa," in the “Arts: Program Feature/Segment” category.
In this post, we catch up with Shadrack on his learning journey, what continues to inspire him, and his dreams for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did READ 180 make a difference in your learning journey?
Shadrack: One of the differences between READ 180 and my other classes was that I had freedom. I had the freedom to move around, and it felt like a community. I had previously gone to school in Ghana, where if you couldn’t or didn’t want to go to school, the teacher came down to get you. It always felt like a community—teachers were involved; parents were involved. Ms. Murphy facilitated a community-based classroom, and I think that I needed that—I needed to go back to something I knew. One of the best parts about it was that I didn’t even need to ask my teacher what my grade was; I just knew. How beautiful is it when a child is in control? That’s what READ 180 gave me—a sense of control, a sense of community, and the ability to have a relationship with my teacher.
How instrumental was your teacher in your learning journey?
Shadrack: Ms. Murphy made us feel like we were superheroes, like we were celebrities, and she put action behind her words. One thing Ms. Murphy really understood is that the very first day you meet your students is probably the most important day of the entire year. The way you present yourself is the way they’re going to remember you from that moment on. The first time you meet somebody—how you approach them, how you communicate with them—makes all the difference.
Is there a moment that stands out as a turning point in your education?
Shadrack: It was the day I read “hallelujah.” It was a word in a book we were reading that everyone was trying to pronounce, but we just couldn’t get it. Ms. Murphy wouldn’t tell us; she wanted to see who would figure it out. That day I was like, “I’m going to get it, I’m going to get this word.” I broke it down and began to sound it out, and it read “ha-le-lu-jah.” I am a spiritual person, so when that became the word that I was able to grab and catch at that moment, it was powerful.
What inspires you to continue to pursue creative arts?
Shadrack: I think that creative side of me comes out of the fact that in my life, I was covered by two people—my mother, who covered me in a literal cloth in a classroom during the war in Liberia, and Ms. Murphy, who covered me in a cloth of her words. I believe in this ideology that when you cover one, you cover all, and for the most part, that is what they did. That’s what inspires me—I’ve been covered and now have the responsibility to cover others. Many of my friends didn’t have a Ms. Murphy, so I feel like I have a responsibility to share stories and inspire more Ms. Murphys.
Your message to young children is to keep dreaming and pursuing those dreams. What dreams are still on the horizon for you?
Shadrack: My goal and vision is to expand The Truth Urban Theater Group. Over the next 10 years, we want to establish The Truth societies in more cities and countries across the world. Each society will write stories and share reflections about their community, and then one week each year, these different societies around the world will come together to perform their pieces. The goal is to really learn about different cultures and diminish borders we have around the world in order to see ourselves in a whole different view and connect in ways we haven’t really connected before. I think stories and narratives can be told in such a creative way that not only do we learn something about one another, we also grow with each other.
You overcame so many challenges on your way to success. Do you have any advice for children who may be going through similar challenges?
Shadrack: Trust the process. It’s not by chance that you are where you are right now. I was left back twice and placed in special ed. I had to go through all those obstacles to meet Ms. Murphy, who told me I was a great writer and encouraged me to pursue writing during and past high school. I needed to go through those struggles in order to become who I am today—if I didn’t, I don’t think I’d have much to write about. When we lose faith in the process and start doubting ourselves, we start juggling too many things, and we waste time. Feed your faith and starve the doubt—if you continue to do that, you’ll always be in line with your passion, and you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.
You can also read more about our most recent 180 Award winners. The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Hear more of Shadrack's story by watching our Facebook Live with him below.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning