Whenever someone asks me about my background I relish the opportunity to tell them about growing up on the south side of Chicago. Though they never say it out loud, you could see the puzzlement in their eyes and they wonder how this woman who is who I am, who grew up where I did, and who was educated at a place where the school bus stop I visited every morning and each afternoon sat in the shadow of the largest drug criminal enterprise to ever evolve in this nation could stand toe to toe with them.
Though they marvel at my achievements – my travels to more than 30 countries, my stories in national and international newspapers, my photography adorning walls and my general smart girl vibe – I do not share their shock and awe because in my mind I’m thinking, “Well, what do you expect from a girl who went to Holy Angels?”
For I know that anything that I have done that’s worth noting is due to God and my parents who had the forethought to send me to an inner-city school where one man fought poverty, crime, racism, religion and the Devil himself to make sure that 1200+ students each year got and gave the best when it came to education.
And for all of us who went together to that school, the largest all-black Catholic school in the nation, which produced doctors, lawyers, journalists even as it was surrounded by five housing projects, rested down the street from the drug headquarters of the El Rukin’s, in a neighborhood where million-dollar homes crop up like poppies now but was once a place even criminals wanted to avoid, you know exactly who I am memorializing here – The Rev. Paul B. Smith.
When Father Smith died I hardly acknowledge it, not because I didn’t care but because it hurt too bad to think about. It brings tears to my eyes and puts a hole in my heart when I think about Father Smith dying, the way he died and who killed him.
But some 16 years later as I’m on the verge of building the company that I’ve always dreamed about building, I can’t help thinking that I probably wouldn’t be dreaming my dreams and better yet making them into reality it were not for Father Smith. I can say with assurance that outside of my mother and father, that Father Smith is the reason I am who I am today.
He was an imposing figure. To a child he seemed to be the very epitome of Goliath, but at 6-foot whatever he made many adults quake too. His curly hair soft and those trademark military-issued thick black glasses, outside of my own father, Father was the first real man I’d ever seen and for many who went to school with me he was the only father that they knew. As anyone would tell you Father Smith was old school, and I remember that I was nervous whenever I was around him even when I was receiving his praise. He didn’t believe in kids talking back to adults, or acting up in class or any of that nonsense that seems to be routine in today’s schools. Respect was the order of the day in his presence and he commanded it without ever speaking.
His aura was authority and when Father Smith said something you listened and if you didn’t well the Alpha Phi Alpha paddles that hung in judgement in his back corner office convinced you to hear him out. Father Smith pulled no punches for us fighting with anyone in Chicago who didn’t give his children a chance to succeed. He bullied mayors, and aldermen, sweet-talked funders and educators and convinced (sometimes coerced) parents that education was not only their children’s job but their job as well. For 24 years he tireless worked upon the behalf of children most people in the world would just as soon throw away.
He had faith in us. He was the first person outside my family to tell me that achievement was not only within my grasp but expected of me and work was the way that I got it but that I had an innate ability to achieve because I was black, determined and excellence ran in my blood.
Do you know what kind of transformation such words could do to a child? Research shows that when teachers tell a child they can’t achieve they don’t, even if they were in gifted programs before they were told. While the world was telling us that we were doomed to failure because we grew up in the inner city he told us that was – excuse my French – bullshit.
I never knew Father Smith as an adult, I only occasionally said hello to him after I graduated but that didn’t matter because I knew I was a Father Smith legacy child which meant when I took a test, went to college, got a job I wasn’t just achieving for myself but for all those who looked at the inner city and thought a fire bomb would do just as well as a school.
I could go on for days about the amazing legacy of this one man but my words would be inadequate to explain his value to us, and this world. So I’ll let you listen to his impact in his own words.
ON EDUCATIONAL EXPECTATIONS:
In a 1979 interview with a Scranton, PA newspaper, Smith spoke proudly of the achievements and accomplishments of “his children”. “The children achieve at the national average or better on standardized tests of basic skills. Our truancy rate is minimal. More than 20 absentees in one day would concern us. This is an indication that our children are happy and want to come to school. Our students are able to go to the best Catholic high schools in the city without any remedial work. Our expectations are high. We expect more and that’s why we get more.”
ON BLACK PRIDE:
Fr. Smith said that once in the turbulent 1970’s, he addressed an auditorium of black fists raised in pride. He asked everyone who had straight A’s to raise their fists. No hands were raised. He then asked everyone with straight B’s to raise their hands. Again there were no hands. Smith then added “ What we’re saying to our children is ‘don’t tell us what you are. Don’t simply say I’m proud because I’m black. Be proud of what you have done’. We are the most inner-city of all inner-city schools, yet we’re producing the best black students in the city of Chicago.”
ON EXTENDING THE SCHOOL DAY TO 11 MONTHS:
A three-month summer recess dates back to the time in America when children had to have time off to work on their family’s farms, harvesting crops. The only crop the inner city produces is failure.”
It saddens my heart that in the 22 years since I graduated Holy Angels has fallen on tough times. Enrollment has fallen to much less than the 1200 it was in its hey day. I have never exhibited the “I got mine,” attitude so when I moved back to Chicago two years ago I jumped right in to help out Lancer Wright and the small group of individuals who are working hard to keep Holy Angels and the legacy of Father Smith alive. Now there is new leadership and after a school closure scare Holy Angels is being reborn. We alumni need to help. Father Smith would expect it from us.
On May 5, 2012 the Holy Angels Alumni association is having a meeting at the school to talk about building a legacy of our own for the school that gave us so much. It would be wonderful if we had so many people come that they couldn’t afford to feed us all which is fine because we make money now anyway we can feed ourselves thanks to Father Smith.