When I was a public defender, I would often have clients who were juveniles. And I had this recurring thought that the kids I was serving—as they were about to enter the criminal justice system—were completely and utterly vulnerable.
They weren’t strong readers. They didn’t process information well or know what questions to ask. They were blindly depending on me—a stranger. And we really weren’t all that different, my clients and me. We sometimes had similar backgrounds. We were sometimes even from the same neighborhood.
The only thing that separated us was education.
Education has taken me so many places. It started with my mom, a single parent with a GED, who understood what education could mean. She instilled in me an early love of reading and learning. After that, oh! There have been so many others. Somebody who took me to the library when my mom was working at the warehouse; somebody who told me to research and look past the superficial answer; somebody who stepped up and made sure I was accountable to myself; somebody who motivated me, or challenged me, or sacrificed for me, or sustained me.
Education took me to UNC Chapel Hill. It took me to law school in Boston. It took me abroad. It took me…beyond.
But I started to question my career.
People in my life gave up so much so I could be where I was. Was I making an impact? Was I changing my community? Was law my calling? So I made the choice.
Instead of entering juveniles into the criminal justice system, I decided to help keep them out of it.
I became a teacher.
Education gave me a purpose to leave Charlotte and gave me a reason to return to it. I’m home again. Sure there are days when the alarm goes off and all I want to do is stay in bed—the days when I really have to dig in to bring the joy.
But here is what gets me out of bed: I see students leave school after a full day and run back to their teachers to sneak in one final hug. I see fourth graders own up to being leaders of the school and to help the younger students. I hear kids say, “Ms. Ivey, I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to do this,” or “I don’t understand this.” And then they say the most important part—yet.
When I see those things—when I see their love and their bravery and their curiosity—I know I can dig a little deeper. When everyone internalizes the culture of team and family, it is a beautiful thing.
Years ago, I was in a law school lecture and one of my professors said something that struck a chord— “Education is the highest form of advocacy.”
My life has been transformed by education. The lives of my students will be transformed because of their education.
Education is the highest form of advocacy.
That phrase is still as powerful as when I first heard it.