Rev. Haynes: Education can unlock human potential
His name is Rev. Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, and as with everything in his life, there is a story there.
When the senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas was a freshman at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, his father dropped dead of a stroke on his first day of school.
Rev. Haynes told the Black Lives Matter Symposium on “Urban Education Matters” at Xavier University of Louisiana Oct. 22 that the day after his father’s funeral, he walked into his first-period English class, the only African American in the room, and took an essay test.
His mind was distracted and he was traumatized by his father’s death – “there were tears that stained that paper,” Rev. Haynes said – but the unexpected came the next day when his teacher returned the corrected essays to her students.
A jolt from the teacher
As a straight-A student who had received only one B in his life, he was called to the front of the class by the teacher instead of having his paper handed out.
“Here, Frederick, is your paper,” his teacher, Miss Anderson, told him in a voice “loud enough for the rest of the class to hear.” “You got a D-minus. You don’t have the skills to handle being in this class.”
She handed him a hall pass to report to the counselor so that he could drop her class.
“She marks my paper in red so that I could get out of that class and into a class that was reflective of my academic status,” Rev. Haynes recalled. “She had labeled me in order to limit me. I was profiled by her in that class. At that very moment, I felt like my black life did not matter.”
Rev. Haynes said in his rage and embarrassment he turned the opposite way in the hall and, instead of heading to the counselor’s office, went for the exit.
“My mind was made up,” he said. “At that moment, I was heading out the door, unbeknownst to me, into a pipeline that was going to take me into America’s growing prison industrial complex.”
As he walked out the door, another teacher, Miss Davis, saw him and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
Rev. Haynes showed her the marked-up paper and explained what had happened.
“Miss Davis snatched that paper and she asked, ‘Who gave you this?’ I said, ‘Miss Anderson.’ And she said, ‘Miss Anderson has issues, so let’s go ahead and get you out of her class and put you in my class.’ I said, ‘No, Miss Anderson said I can’t write.’ Miss Davis said, ‘Your problem isn’t that you can’t write; it’s that she can’t teach.’”
The intervention and the teacher’s belief in him stoked a fire.
Rev. Haynes said Miss Davis assured him he would “be a leader among our people. Your oratorical skills have got to be heard.”
“As she was telling me all this stuff, tears were streaming down my face,” Rev. Haynes said. “She was pouring into me possibility and power and potential, even though I was heartbroken and messed up.”
Miss Davis then told him, “Frederick, I believe in you. In fact, I believe if you do what I know you can do, you’ll be the first black valedictorian in the history of Abraham Lincoln High School.”
When Rev. Haynes reminded her about the D-minus, she shot back: “That D is in your past. I’m in your future.”
“From that day forward, I began to walk like a valedictorian, I began to think like a valedictorian, I did my homework like a valedictorian, I studied like a valedictorian,” he said.
“And on June 15, 1978, I walked down the aisle, leading my class, as the first black valedictorian in the history of Abraham Lincoln High School. You can imagine. I was coming down the aisle and the faculty were sitting in that (front) section in alphabetical order. That meant Miss Anderson sat right there (in front). As I walked down the aisle, I looked at Miss Anderson and said, ‘How do you like me now!’ I knew that my black life mattered.”
Rev. Haynes said the American educational system needs a revolution to truly meet the needs of every child. Using the analogy of a cake baked without sugar, he said the product looks good but can’t be salvaged.
“You cannot put additional sugar on the cake,” he said. “No, it is essential that the cake is rebaked. We need to rebake the cake of the system of education in the United States.”
Rev. Haynes said his grandfather – Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes – started the first black youth church in California, and his Third Baptist Church in San Francisco became the largest black Baptist church west of the Mississippi.
His grandfather was orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by an older sister, who every night read him the exploits of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist. His grandfather went by the nickname of “Bubba,” but on his first day of school, the teacher asked him his name.
“He stood up and said, ‘My name is Frederick Douglass Haynes,’” Rev. Haynes said. “That’s the power of education; it enables you to decide who you are, and that means you have the power to rise up and make a difference.”
Rev. Haynes said those African Americans who have benefitted from an excellent education have a duty to give back, akin to Harriet Tubman, who will be the new face of the $20 bill, fleeing the South and then returning 13 times to rescue slave families.
“Education isn’t just about you; it’s what you do for others,” he said. “God blessed you with gifts and educated you so you can give a contribution. Once you ‘get yours,’ you don’t measure your success by your ability to get away from your people. You measure your success by what you do making a contribution to your community.”