“If I stand tall, it is because I stand on the backs of those who came before me.” –Iyanla Vanzant
A few weeks ago while sitting in my living room, my roommate and I were watching the television/awards show “Black Girls Rock” on Black Entertainment Television (BET). I’ve never been one to watch BET, though stereotypically, I should be. Nor have I really ever been attracted to awards shows which further alienate other minority groups (while I understand the intent of the channel, I do feel that it does more harm than good in the grand scheme of things). However, while watching the show, inspirational speaker and author Iyanla Vanzant recited these words as she accepted an award: “If I stand tall, it is because I stand on the backs of those who came before me. I stand on the back of Maya Angelou; I stand on the back of Toni Morrison; and I stand on the back of Sonia Sanchez. I stand on their backs.”
Upon hearing these words, I immediately thought of my students whom I have yet to encounter and the awesome potential which lies dormant in so many of them. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, people are not successful solely because of luck or hard work and dedication. Gladwell asserts that success in life is based on a series of opportunities and often chance circumstances which allow us to “stand tall.” As I kept thinking about Vanzant’s words in conjunction with Gladwell’s theory of success, I quickly began to realize that each student does is in fact have a lineage of “backs” upon which they can stand: parents, role models, previous teachers, historical figures, advocates, activists, all of whom may or may not be of the same race or ethnic background as they are.
As a teacher, I believe it is my duty to expose my students to this truth and open their eyes to the incredible foundations upon which they stand. I further contemplated what I would do, however, when I come across a student who lacks this foundation—who has no role models or figures to look up to. We’ve talked so much about challenging our students to reach their full potential, but how can this be done with a student who feels as if they have no reason to work hard and nothing to which they can relate or depend upon. It was at this moment when I realized that I could be the “back” that student walked on. I could empower them with the resources, confidence, and belief that they are worthy of standing tall because every student should be aware of that. By allowing my students to stand on some foundation whether it is the backs to which Vanzant references or my own, it is my hope that the lineage of success and standing tall will carry on long after my students have left my classroom.