One day in 11th grade, I went into a classroom to wait for a
friend of mine. When I went into the room, the teacher, Mr.
Washington, suddenly appeared and asked me to go to the board to
write something, to work something out. I told him that I
couldnít do it. And he said, "Why not?"
I said, "Because Iím not one of your students."
He said, "It doesnít matter. Go to the board anyhow."
I said, "I canít do that."
He said, "Why not?"
And I paused because I was somewhat embarrassed. I said,
"Because Iím Educable Mentally Retarded."
He came from behind his desk and he looked at me and he
said, "Donít ever say that again. Someoneís opinion of you does
not have to become your reality."
It was a very liberating moment for me. On one hand, I was
humiliated because the other students laughed at me. They knew
that I was in Special Education. But on the other hand, I was
liberated because he began to bring to my attention that I did
have to live within the context of what another personís view
of me was.
And so Mr. Washington became my mentor. Prior to this
experience, I had failed twice in school. I was identified as
Educable Mentally Retarded in the fifth grade, was put back from
the fifth grade into the fourth grade, and failed again, when I
was in the eighth grade. So this person made a dramatic
difference in my life.
I always say that he operates in the consciousness of
Goethe, who said, "Look at a man the way that he is, he only
becomes worse. But look at him as if he were what he could be,
and then he becomes what he should be." Like Calvin Lloyd, Mr.
Washington believed that "Nobody rises to low expectations." This
man always gave students the feeling that he had high
expectations for them and we strove, all of the students strove,
to live up to what those expectations were.
One day, when I was still a junior, I heard him giving a
speech to some graduating seniors. He said to them, "You have
greatness within you. You have something special. If just one of
you can get a glimpse of a larger vision of yourself, of who you
really are, of what it is you bring to the planet, of your
specialness, then in a historical context, the world will never
be the same again. You can make your parents proud. You can make
your school proud. You can make your community proud. You can
touch millions of peopleís lives." He was talking to the seniors,
but it seemed like that speech was for me.
I remember when they gave him a standing ovation.
Afterwards, I caught up to him in the parking lot and I said,
"Mr. Washington, do you remember me? I was in the auditorium when
you were talking to the seniors."
He said, "What were you doing there? You are a junior."
I said, "I know. But that speech you were giving, I heard
your voice coming through the auditorium doors. That speech was
for me, Sir. You said they had greatness within them. I was in
that auditorium. Is there greatness within me, Sir?"
He said, "Yes, Mr. Brown."
"But what about the fact that I failed English and math and
history, and Iím going to have to go to summer school. What about
that, Sir? Iím slower than most kids. Iím not as smart as my
brother or my sister whoís going to the University of Miami."
"It doesnít matter. It just means that you have to work
harder. Your grades donít determine who you are or what you can
produce in your life."
"I want to buy my mother a home."
"Itís possible, Mr. Brown. You can do that." And he turned
to walk away again.
"What do you want now?"
"Uh, Iím the one, Sir. You remember me, remember my name.
One day youíre gonna hear it. Iím gonna make you proud. Iím the
School was a real struggle for me. I was passed from one
grade to another because I was not a bad kid. I was a nice kid; I
was a fun kid. I made people laugh. I was polite. I was
respectful. So teachers would pass me on, which was not helpful
to me. But Mr. Washington made demands on me. He made me
accountable. But he enabled me to believe that I could handle it,
that I could do it.
He became my instructor my senior year, even though I was
Special Education. Normally, Special Ed students donít take
Speech and Drama, but they made special provisions for me to be
with him. The principal realized the kind of bonding that had
taken place and the impact that heíd made on me because I had
begun to do well academically. For the first time in my life I
the honor roll. I wanted to travel on a trip with the drama
and you had to be on the honor roll in order to make
the trip out of town. That was a miracle for me!
Mr. Washington restructured my own picture of who I am. He
gave me a larger vision of myself, beyond my mental conditioning
Years later, I produced five specials that appeared on
public television. I had some friends call him when my program,
'You Deserve,' was on the educational television channel in
Miami. I was sitting by the phone waiting when he called me in
Detroit. He said, "May I speak to Mr. Brown, please?"
"You know whoís calling."
"Oh, Mr. Washington, itís you."
"You were the one, werenít you?"
"Yes, Sir, I was."