My parents — and by that I mean the families with whom I work — ask me all the time, “how did you get started in this line work?”
My journey began like this…
I tell them that, for me, it started 13 years ago. Yes, my children are the most important reason that I do this work. I was just a mom who had children with disabilities, who knew that her children could do better and achieve more than everyone seemed to believe. I was that mom who could not just up and move to a better school zone. I was just that mom who could not pay to send my child to the best schools that had outlandish tuition cost. I was just that mom who worked with her children at home and knew their ability. I trusted the system because I had always believed that the people in it were educated to teach, handle behaviors, and specialize in disabilities. I trusted them with my priceless treasures. My children.
I was too trusting and my motherly instinct kicked in that something was wrong. I could teach them at home and they could get it but for some reason, they were not getting it in school. I started out just like every other parent who begins to feel the need to learn about what other options and services exist. Upon finding out what they were, I felt a deep obligation to apply what I had learned.
My children are my heartbeat. My son is blind in his left eye and has ADHD. My daughter suffers from blindness and seizures.
Here’s how it used to go:
I would go to IEP meeting after IEP meeting sitting in the chair, words flying over my head that I would jot down, to later look up. There were endless papers to quickly scan and sign. And then, we were gone. The meeting was over after just ten or fifteen minutes of big words and “sign here please.” I would leave so confused. I felt hopeless and powerless.
I had to go home and read, research, and read again before I even scratched the surface. I would try to come in with questions but the truth is, I never understood the answers. I left every meeting in tears.
My son needed and deserved more. And my daughter, who came into this world at 1 pound 8 ounces and wasn’t expected to ever walk, talk, or look older than a four-year-old, needed and deserved a lot more. So I began to seek it. Already in college myself at this point, I was finally armed with some knowledge. I started asking for things for my children but they all got rejected. It didn’t feel right and my inner voice told me that something needed to be done. I found that being active in the school helped, and my relationship with teachers and principals grew much stronger.
Dry those tears. Your baby needs you.
There are two principals who stand out for me because they cared for my children as if they were their own. Dr. Ruby Payne and Dr. Rochelle Williamson. These ladies were like angels and they altered my journey because they encouraged me to keep moving forward and to push back. And I did.
I felt more confident that my children deserved more and found my voice to start pushing back in meetings. And so, they pushed back too. They began to bring more people into the room armed with data to back up their devastating and heartbreaking claim: “Your child can’t learn.” There is nothing scarier than that.: My girl. My fighter. My little princess who had beaten all the odds can’t learn?
She was walking. They said she never would. She was talking. They said she never would. And she was learning — I saw it every day — but not in the way they thought she should.
Dr. Payne and Dr. Williamson gave me the validation and the courage I needed. They would see me cry and say to me, with love and determination in their eyes, “dry those tears. Your baby needs you.”
They taught me that I am my children’s first advocate and since then, I have never looked back. I fought and still fight to get them what they need. But I have also made a commitment to fighting for other parents too. Those two school principals gave me hope when I didn’t have any left. They encouraged me to become informed and stand up to those who had always thought that they knew more about my child than I did.
So I keep educating myself. When I worked for the school system I still kept up the fight, working to help parents advocate for their children. And now, today, I am a full-time advocate. Just like I’m a mother 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I am also an advocate.
And I will not slow down or change for anyone.
(Teresena Wright was born and raised in Memphis, she is the adoptive mother of her niece and nephew. Outside of her education advocacy work, she loves to sing and has even been professionally recorded. She loves children — which is good since she is surrounded by them all the time. This post was originally published at Memphis K12)