My Uber driver veered right off of the exit, made a couple of turns and pulled over to the side of North Wilmington Ave in Compton. “I think this is it,” he, a 20-something year-old Filipino man said as he looked over his shoulder at me. Then he looked at the school to the right, a low, light brick building with teal bars crisscrossed across the windows (my friend would comment later that it looked similar to a prison, as many schools in urban areas do), and said, “but I don’t see where you should go in. Let me drive around the block to see if there is an entrance.”
“I’m good,” I responded, grabbing the handles of my purse in preparation of getting out of the car. “I’ll walk around until I find the entrance.”
He snickered and shook his head, “There is no way I’m letting you out here by yourself. No way. This is Compton”, and started driving around the block slowly due to multiple speed bumps in the neighborhood, until we ended up where we started. “I guess this is it,” he announced gesturing to at tall, teal gate. He got my suitcase out of his trunk and I walked through one gate and then through another that had a sign on it that read “gate will be closed when school is in session.”
I felt no danger, nor saw any; but trusted what the driver, the teal bars and the signs told me and walked directly inside of the gates. I thought, what must it be to go to school in a place that is considered unsafe at 10:00 in the morning?
The setting inside of the bars was the antithesis to the expectation outside: security and care. As soon as, I entered the front office and was greeted by all three personnel sitting there. They made me feel as if they were so happy to again see an old friend, though they never met me before. Immediately, I discovered that unlike prisons, the bars weren’t needed to keep people in but to keep anything that may disturb the peaceful, loving, environment out.
Less than a minute after I was told that one of Mr. Inge’s students would be down to get me, a thin girl, the color of milk chocolate brownie, sporting individual braids weaved towards one side of her head, smiled, with her lightly glossed lips broadly, and told me that her name was Malaiya and she was there to escort me to Mr. Inge’s class. She bounced (literally there was a carefree, happy bop to her walk that accompanies youth and absence of adult problems) and chatted with me the way a polite child is raised to humor an adult.
“I wanna deliver babies,” Malaiya shared smiling as if she were imagining herself in scrubs coaching a woman through labor.” I was smitten with her before we reached the classroom. She was beautiful, confident, and her dreams were as big as her smile. Her circumstances not only didn’t define her; but she seemed oblivious to any bad “circumstances.” This is the type of spirit that makes it, I thought. She will deliver babies. In just a 3-minute walk, this child has delivered a sermon to me.
When we walk into the classroom, my new friend, Malaiya walked over to her two girlfriends—forgetting me, I am sure, for the most part. I walk to the group of adults which includes one of my dearest friends from college, who has flown 3000 miles to support Mr. Inge; and Mr. Inge, our friend, who has dedicated his life to the children of Compton for over 20 years (earning him many accolades).
Groups of kids talked amongst themselves as the group of adults talked about the stories that Mr. Inge’s other presenters already had shared. They had all talked about overcoming great odds to accomplish impressive things: from drug addition to college professor, from the projects to doctor, from a D student to CEO. I figured that the purpose of Mr. Inge having many of his former students and college friends come speak at a school where an Uber driver was scared to release me to was to deliver the message: you can achieve whatever you want—despite your circumstances.
And that’s when I, a woman who has spoken to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and to hundreds of people became almost cripplingly nervous. I lamented: I don’t have a story. I haven’t overcome anything substantial; and I want to greatly impact my audience. They need to know that they can get past life’s literal and figurative gates.
I considered lying—inventing stories about obstacles that I had overcome. I wanted these students to feel inspired to unlatch, climb over, kick down, walk around any gate blocking any paths to their goals. I kept debating about exactly what I was going to say; but I knew that I would start my speech by thanking Mr. Inge for inviting me into his classroom. I wondered what he has his students call him: Mr. Inge or Regis, since in California protocol is more relaxed than many parts of the country.
“Regis,” I beckoned, interrupting conversation he was having with another presenter, “what do you have the kids call you?”.
“Mr. Inge,” he said in a way that said, “girl, you know we old school. I don’t play that familial crap.”
Malaiya and her 2 friends stood a couple feet from us giggling and talking, but obviously had been listening to our conversation because Malaya, her long legs crossed at the ankles as she leaned on one of the wooden desks, offered, “I call him Daddy.” Her face radiated when she said, “Daddy,” as if that word was like expensive champagne on her tongue: cool, sweet bubbles that popped and tickled her mouth.
Mr. Inge smiled too, “yes, that’s one of my daughters right there.
I had seen several former students refer to Mr. Inge as Dad, Daddy or Pops on social media; but never gave it much thought…that is until I saw Malaiya’s face when she said “Daddy.” I don’t’ know Malaiya’s family story; but I am positive that Mr. Inge is the man whom has most been a constant presence in her life. He has been there—he has been her “Daddy.”I witnessed that calling someone “Daddy” was like salve placed on a burn: it provided relief and healing.
It also provided a lesson –for me. Kids aren’t as complicated as adults sometimes can be or make things. My story ( if I did or didn’t overcome major obstacles) didn’t matter, as much as, my presence did. I was there to share myself, my story, my time, my love– just as Mr. Inge does day-after-day, year-after-year. I was there, on the other side of the teal gates.
My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more