We all remember the influential teacher who made a difference in our lives. But for Drego Little, the teacher that changed his life was the one he hated most.
In the 1980s Mr. Little attended Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools. He said that back then, teachers didn't pay much attention to black youth, and didn't expect black kids to finish their homework. School became less valuable to Mr. Little, and one day he realized he would always be an outsider.
The low point came when Mr. Little was a sophomore. It was black history month, and his white teacher wanted the class to watch Roots, the miniseries about slavery.
In the series, the slave Kunta Kinte gets his foot chopped off as punishment for trying to escape his plantation.
Mr. Little heard about this scene from relatives and asked not to watch the show. He was already one of the few black students in the class – why would he want to make himself even more uncomfortable? Instead, he asked his teacher if he could read the narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglas, a slave who became a free man.
"I asked him, could I either do an extra credit or an alternative assignment?" Mr. Little remembered, "because I'm not comfortable watching this movie. And he was like, 'No, this is my class, you'll do what I tell you.'"
Mr. Little was upset. "What kind of teacher are you?" he asked his teacher.
"That's when it went south" Mr. Little said. "He got offensive and turned red in the face and was like, 'Get out. Get the hell out of my class.' And I left that class and left school."
Mr. Little stopped attending school, but he didn’t stop reading books. He went to a coffee shop in the University District where he read some of his favorite authors: Steinbeck, Dickens and Richard Wright, among others.
"The Ave back then was kind of beautiful and grubby and weird," he said. "No one was paying attention to the black guy when there's a group of homeless kids doing drugs in the doorway."
Mr. Little's uncle was one of the few black men that Mr. Little looked up to, and he pushed his nephew to return to school. This time, Mr. Little went to college. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Law, Societies, and Justice.
But he hungered for more education.
Mr. Little was raised in a home where social service and advocacy were considered important. He applied to graduate school with the goal of becoming a literacy teacher.
"For the population that I was working with, kids who are referred to as at risk, education is probably one of the drivers of opportunity," he said. "It doesn't mean everybody is going to get a Mercedes. What it gives you is access to power. That's why literacy is important."
By now, Mr. Little was raising a child alone, which meant he had to feed two mouths.
Getting out of poverty is difficult when you've been in it your whole life, so Mr. Little used food stamps and became a 'welfare dad,' while working a part time job.
In graduate school, he felt like an outsider. He sat in class with "privileged white kids, mouthing off about welfare."
"They didn’t know what a food stamp looked like," he said.
But this time, he didn't leave. Instead, he enlightened them. "There are people on welfare who are raising children," he told his classmates. "That's kind of hard work, it's work that needs to be done well, and it's very hard to do that well when you're stuck in survival mode. So people need some type of support."
He told them that he was on welfare. "Their response to me was always, 'Well yeah, but you're doing something with it.'"
Something Mr. Little always returned to, besides his education, were his kids. Not just the kids he conceived, but the kids he tutored. The kids he volunteered for. The kids he advocated for.
"I get to work with awesome, hardworking kids who take themselves and the work they do seriously," he said.
I was one of those kids.
I’ve known Mr. Little for over seven years and he’s been my teacher for over four. The reading seminars I've been involved in, the free events at Town Hall Seattle, the free books, the cooking classes – all of these activities I've been involved in were because of him.
He believed my education was important. He thought I was vast with knowledge. He pushed me into something that could withstand so much more than I thought I was capable of.
Feven Mekonenn recently graduated from Seattle Prep and plans to pursue Environmental Studies in college this fall. She created this story in RadioActive Youth Media's Spring 2016 Workshop for high school students at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Drego Little has taught literature and writing for over a decade at Rainier Scholars, a Seattle organization dedicated to serving students of color.