A Teacher's Impact Lasts a Lifetime
“It was like walking from darkness into the light,” Dr. Shelley Stewart recalls his first day of school.
Many impressive personal achievements fill his 80 years. Yet, walking into school and meeting his first grade teacher is memory that still burns bright.
Ms. Mamie Labon Foster, a young first grade teacher, brought hope and inspiration into the life of a boy who had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of hurt and hardship. It was her hug, reassurance, and fervent belief in the power of reading and education that set him on a path of achievement.
Before stepping into Union Baptist School, Shelley had already witnessed the violent murder of his mother by his drunken father. But this is not a story about a childhood tragedy; rather, it is testament to the power of a teacher in the life of a child.
Ms. Foster faced many challenges educating students in the segregated, poverty-stricken Rosedale neighborhood of Birmingham, AL during the early 1940s. Most students entering her class did not have literate parents or access to books in their homes. Her presence in Shelley’s life provided a sense of stability away from the chaos surrounding him.
Her encouragements that first day of school might have been a small part of Ms. Foster’s day, but to six-year-old Shelley, they became a mantra. He began to believe in himself, just as Ms. Foster did. He bounced around Birmingham, living with different family members and changing schools often, but education was always his priority.
Shelley did see his beloved Ms. Foster again…the day of his high school graduation. He did not expect the cheers the others received when their names were called. But to Shelley's delight, Ms. Foster stood up and said, “That’s my boy!” For the second time, she was the one there for him at just the right moment.
Shelley Stewart went on to be a Civil Rights activist, radio personality, advertising executive, community leader, and philanthropist. And thanks to Ms. Foster, he remained a student and avid reader. Always an advocate for education, he now spends his time supporting teachers and students with The Mattie C Stewart Foundation and their innovative dropout prevention programs.
Shelley had many reasons to drop out of school and fall victim to the influences of his neighborhood and family, but he did not. Ms. Foster showed him education was the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, abuse and crime.
The story of Dr. Stewart and Ms. Foster, is not specific to a time and place. In classrooms across the nation, it plays out daily. Teachers continue make dramatic differences for students facing challenges each and every day.
Did you have a Ms. Foster in your life? If so, please join The Mattie C Stewart Foundation and State Farm and #ThankATeacher.
The Mattie C Stewart Foundation is named after Shelley’s late mother. It is dedicated to keeping students in school and reducing the national dropout rate. Dr. Stewart saw too many community members ending up in dire circumstances, including prison. Studies have found approximately 75% of the inmate population is high school dropouts. The Foundation, using school-based programs like The Choice Bus, Inside Out documentary and Learn2Earn has served 2,028,664 students since its founding in 2007.
During the first part of the 25-minute experience, students watch videos and discuss the impact of education. They see how their school choices affect their earning potential over their lifetimes. Then the students see the second half of the bus. It is a full-size replica of a jail cell, providing a brief experience of incarcerated life. The message is powerful and simple: a good education can lead to a lifetime of opportunities. Each student has the ability to make choices that will lead to positive or negative outcomes.
In 2015, State Farm provided 33 weeks of touring support to take The Choice Bus experience to schools in 11 states. In total, the programs will influence 40,000 students in one calendar year, at no cost to the schools.
To learn more about the Choice Bus or request a school visit, visit their website at http://www.mattiecstewart.org/.