Complaints of unfair hiring are hurting our school kids

Published 6:11 pm Friday, August 26, 2011

I had a phenomenal fifth grade English teacher at John Johnson Elementary School, Mrs. Jan Thomas. We had an assignment to memorize a different poem each week of school. One poem in particular that always remained with me was entitled “Your Name.” The poem reads in part,

“So make sure you guard it wisely

After all is said and done

You’ll be glad the name is spotless

When you give it to your son”

Today, I cannot help but think that Mrs. Thomas chose this poem strategically — not to just enrich her students academically, but to calibrate their moral compasses. I believe she intended to teach her students the importance of acting honorably, working hard and maintaining a positive reputation, because your name is the only thing you will always have. Because your name is an invaluable asset, you should protect it all costs. It is this firm belief and earnest conviction that has required me to make a statement regarding the libelous, slanderous and defamatory declarations made against the Decatur County Board of Education administrators and employees.

I am a product of the Decatur County School System, from entering kindergarten at Jones-Wheat Elementary School to graduating as the valedictorian of Bainbridge High School. I will be graduating in May 2012 with a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, before returning home to take the Georgia Bar. I understand that I have had awesome educational opportunities and am immensely blessed. I appreciate the support and encouragement of my parents, Dr. Linda B. Lumpkin and Mr. Melvin Lumpkin, also a product of the Decatur County School System. However, I must attribute my love of education and the empowerment it provides to the Decatur County School System.

Although I live in California, I was recently home for the summer and attended the Board of Education meeting on Aug. 18, 2011. I was absolutely appalled at the disrespect and hostility shown to the Board of Education and the citizens it represents by Doris Cosby and Sandra Gordon, and their extremely small cadre of followers disguised as representing the “minority community,” though I cannot help but believe their positions were self-appointed. As a product of the Decatur County School System, which first introduced me to the importance of civic engagement and political activism, I understood their right to voice their concerns. However, I wondered if there might not have been a more constructive way to do so.

Let me be clear. The allegations of discriminatory hiring practices are completely baseless. Contrary to certain citizens’ beliefs, education is important in America. That is why it is regulated through the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Georgia Department of Education. It is important that children have qualified teachers. But it is also critically important that these teachers have an enthusiasm toward teaching. It is even more important that our top administrators, namely the Superintendent of Schools and the Assistant Superintendents, believe that they have the full faith and support of their local community. As of now, certain citizens are diminishing the appearance of that faith by personally attacking Decatur County School System administrators and employees.

It has been brought to my attention that certain individuals have distributed defamatory fliers regarding the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, and an elementary school principal at Decatur County Schools, and of all places, at the Gilbert H. Gragg Public Library. There is no other way for me to say it — this has got to stop. What I have not seen is these individuals build support for their cause without resorting to name-calling and attempting to deplete the morale of Decatur County School System employees. What I have not seen is these citizens engage the “community” they claim to represent in an organized and constructive dialogue about the issues that concern them and propose a plan of action. What I have not seen is these citizens organize any kind of community enrichment and development program for minority students to provide a pipeline to the education profession if that truly is their concern. But I want to express fully that the children of Decatur County are the ones who are truly being hurt. Despite what anyone may think, our children are seeing all of this transpire and wondering what is really important. Should I resort to tactics of intimidation and embarrassment to get what I want? Is it more important that my teacher is black or white, or that he or she be a good teacher?

I can only speak from my personal experiences:

I remember by third grade teacher, Mrs. Janet Mitchell, because she pushed me to be the best I could possibly be. Even when I thought I had written an excellent response to an English assignment, she asked me questions forcing me to consider why I didn’t write about another angle. From her, I learned the importance of seeing situations from the other person’s point of view and tastefully articulating my own position.

My high school trigonometry teacher, Mrs. Terri Elrod, opened her classroom at 7:30 a.m. every morning for ANY Bainbridge High School student who had questions or trouble in math, no matter what class the student was taking. At the time, I probably took her being there for granted. I knew if I had a question about the unit circle, she would be there to answer it. But now, I realize that she went above and beyond what her job required. From her, I learned the importance of paying it forward — giving of my time to others to provide a foundation for whatever heights to which they aspire to ascend.

My elementary school principal, Dr. Larry Clark, also had an amazing impact on me. Every morning walking through the halls, he always said “Good morning,” letting me know that someone actually cared about how I started my day. And even later in the hall, he ran a tight ship — we all knew to keep our hands, feet, and objects to ourselves. From him, I learned the importance of civility, order, and respect.

I probably learned the most from my mother, Dr. Linda B. Lumpkin, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, who has bared a terrible brunt of these accusations. She taught me that you have got to work hard for whatever you want, no matter how many hours it takes. You must always treat everyone fairly and understand that you are where you are because you stand on the shoulders of others. Therefore, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on yours. These are the lessons she taught my sister and me, while working tirelessly in almost every job in the Decatur County School System from classroom teacher to guidance counselor to assistant principal to principal. Doing all of this, while managing to be at our band concerts, football games, track meets, FFA contests and American Legion competitions, shows her perseverance and an abiding commitment to the children of Decatur County. Though I have only met Dr. Rayfield briefly, I can tell that these principles abide with him as well, and he shares them every day with his children in the Decatur County Schools. They deserve our support. For our children’s sake, we should require it.

What stands out about these teachers and administrators for me years later is not what color they were, but the lessons they imparted upon me. These are lessons that I think the citizens who have fostered this culture of antagonism and resentment toward the Decatur County School System could learn from. Everywhere I go, I talk about growing up in Bainbridge and people always comment on how fondly I speak about the people and the sense of community we must have had here. We need to return to that and live up to our name. This means supporting the people who have the most integral role in determining what the Bainbridge of tomorrow looks like.

Stop the animosity about daughters, nieces, sons, etc., not getting hired and focus on what is best for the children of Decatur County. As we embark upon the United States’ first dedication of a national monument to an African-American, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, I cannot imagine what Dr. King would think of what is going on right now. Should we really be more concerned about the color of a teacher’s skin or the content of his or her certification — and character? I am disheartened by the attacks of the past few months, but I am inspired by the promise of better days ahead. Hopefully, my thoughts shock someone’s conscience, or at a minimum touch his or her heart.

Like Dr. King, I pray that out of this mountain of despair, for the children of Decatur County, we can each hew out a stone of hope.

Mellori E. Lumpkin

Oakland, Calif.