We called (New Mexico’s acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski) Mr. R because, you know, Ruszkowski was too difficult for most of us to pronounce. Most of us were first-generation kids born in north Miami to Caribbean immigrants, so needless to say his last name wasn’t too common. Neither was his teaching style: He was a well-versed, well-prepared teacher who taught us to think critically by both embracing and challenging the traditional middle-school social studies curriculum. Sure, he made sure that we mastered the basics – but he also introduced us to Bruce Springsteen, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and the Roots television mini-series of 1977, which was quite the revelation for many of us. He delivered his lesson plans for his seventh- and eighth-graders using literature, music, art, culture and media.
It was a learning experience unlike anything before. I learned about American political campaigns by running in a mock class election and losing to this popular kid, Victor, who was weak on policy but got the “mock media” to smear me. I dissected songs on the radio for political meaning. I learned that there were two sides, at minimum, to every social and economic issue – and was always frustrated that Mr. R would never tell us his opinion on any political issue! Later, in eighth grade, I ushered my family down the Oregon Trail – and learned what it was like for those who ventured west for a better life, and empathized with them.
Mr. R imparted in us a special appreciation for different kinds of culture and perspectives on the country and the world – cultural lessons that were outside of my “traditional” Jamaican and Lebanese home-grown roots.
With his guidance and letter of recommendation, I was one of a few kids from north Miami accepted to MAST Academy. At the time, MAST Academy was one of the top 50 high schools in the United States and situated in one of the most expensive ZIP codes, Key Biscayne, Fla. Now I was surrounded by some of the sharpest kids in the district, and I raised my game – just like Mr. R said I would. And right after high school, I interned with him at Miami Teaching Fellows, where I saw what it looked like to be an entrepreneur who fights inside the system for better outcomes for kids like me. Later on, with his mentorship and yet another letter of recommendation, I went on to study Economics and Government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I raised my game again – and graduated with honors in a little over three years.
Today, I’m a junior executive at a Fortune 200 company.
It is an honor and a blessing to have been one of Mr. R’s students. He is more than my former middle school teacher – he is now a lifelong mentor and someone I can call about big life decisions. And I now recognize more than ever that opportunities for upward mobility are not readily available to the students of minorities and low-income families without great teachers and access to great schools. He taught me to write persuasively, recommended great books to read by Caribbean authors, and gave me the confidence to go after something bigger than the standards society often imposed on me and other students like me.
These opportunities might not have existed without Mr. R. His expectations for me were higher than my expectations were for myself – I can’t wait to see what that means for the kids of New Mexico.