Now principal of a Philadelphia school, Thomas-EL recounts his experiences teaching and organizing a chess program that turned potential dropouts into winners.
A product of Philadelphia’s inner city, raised by a mother who worked as often as she could but frequently was on welfare, the bright and hardworking boy was encouraged to excel by both Mom and his teachers, who helped him gain admittance to a magnet school and then a small, largely white college. Exposed to racism from students and professors, Thomas-EL was tempted to quit, but he persevered, graduated, and decided to pursue a career in television or the law. He had no intention of teaching, even though one of his professors had told him that he could help his community more as a teacher than as a lawyer. He began working as an intern for a sports channel, but was increasingly drawn to teaching; since most of his TV work was at night, he began substituting in schools. Loving the work and the kids, he decided to earn certification and a master’s degree so he could get a permanent position in the Philadelphia public school system. He describes how he did this, paying tribute to the mentors who encouraged him. Meanwhile, his students had to overcome numerous problems to stay in school; many had parents on drugs and didn’t get enough to eat in homes plagued by violence. Thomas-EL’s first success was an alternative learning program called Second Chance designed for disruptive students; it became so popular that students deliberately misbehaved so they could attend. Determined that the kids needed to expand their minds—“strive for an MBA, instead of the NBA”—he began a successful chess program; students won national competitions, as well as the respect and admiration of their peers.
An eloquent example of how commitment and innovation can better the lives of inner-city children.