Onward, Upward, Always!

Onward, Upward, Always!

I believe that every person — not just children — had an amazing capacity for learning, if only they allowed themselves the opportunity. While learning does begin at early ages, the ability to learn and grow has boundless possibilities — which means you can begin at any age. As the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, I was immersed in a culture of “onward, upward, always.” My mother reminded me often of her father being told he could not send any of his thirteen children to school or risk being put off the land on which they worked. In a show of defiance, my grandfather insisted that my mother and her older brother — the two youngest of the 13 — attend school. And so, they became the first to receive formal education and to complete high school. I am never far removed from the woman whose matriculation awards and merits under Jim Crow, refused to acknowledge the instruction with dignity — and instead announced her diplomas as certificates of participation at the “Colored Attendance Center.” The county refused to even call the school a school. Still, her passion for learning grew.

Dr. Shantella Sherman
Dr. Shantella Sherman

What could have raised the ire of this family, instead turned into solid waves of uplift. My uncle, for instance made it a point of very respectfully going to seniors in the community — many of whom had also been denied access to education under threat of violence. This community of elders could not write or spell their own names, and he set aside time to work with each to ensure they could. These same elders would later use the workbooks of their grandchildren to open up a world of opportunities from which they believed their age and condition barred them.

Today, as an educator, I press upon every person I meet to take a chance, lay a bet, make a wager — on your own educational uplift. There is no embarrassment in starting late, having to start again, or feeling as though you don’t have what it takes — as long as you get over that embarrassment! The reality is that not only do you have what it takes, you have it in surplus! So, what, you’re 17 and your reading is that of a 3rd-grader? Let’s work to get it up to standard! So, what if you’re fifty and everyone else in the class is 20? None of you know the work that’s why you’re all in the same room! It’s one thing to be denied access by inhumane practices, as my grandparents were, it’s quite another to deny yourself a chance.

My mother’s onward, upward, always spirit in 1967, inspired her two children to both become doctors — a JD and a PhD. My brother and I refuse to frame those degrees for our offices, and instead, humbly presented them to her, for her display. They are far more hers, than ours.

Let us work this school year to ensure that every student — no matter their age — feel the love and support of a community of good people who want their uplift.

Onward, Upward, Always!

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