Photo: Matthew Mugo Fields and his seventh-grade language arts teacher, Mrs. O'Gorman.
When I was about 10 years old and midway through fifth grade, my family and I moved from Barbados to the suburbs of Philadelphia. At that time, most U.S. schools were still organized into tracks. In my district, any student who had immigrated from a country that was on a predetermined list was automatically moved down one grade level and then relegated to the lowest track, regardless of their individual aptitude. It was an approach driven by little data.
Then, my intervention happened. Mrs. Mary O’Gorman was my seventh-grade language arts teacher. Mrs. O’Gorman was a small, feisty Irish woman who was uninterested in the opinions of a system that had arbitrarily labelled me. As Mrs. O’Gorman said, “Labels were not something I appreciated or liked, because if you tell a child he’s a bright reader—he’s bright, he’s this—they rise to do what you’re expecting.” Mrs. O’Gorman knew that the expectations a teacher has for a student can completely change how that student performs academically, and so she did her best to set high expectations for all her students, regardless of which track they’d been assigned.
One day, Mrs. O’Gorman gave us an assignment: go to the library, pick a book, and write a book report. She wanted us to give an oral presentation as well. I vividly remember the day I stood up in front of the whole class to present about a book on Muhammad Ali by Kenneth Rudeen. Mrs. O’Gorman sat at the back of the room, and by the time I was finished with my presentation, she was sitting there with her mouth open and said something along the lines of, “We need to make sure this kid goes to college.” Then, she began to clap, and it was like I was on top of the world. Mrs. O’Gorman believed in me—not only when nobody else did but also when she had been explicitly told not to by the system. She changed my life.