Scott inspires teachers’ conference
Manny Scott is no stranger to pain and suffering.
His father spent most of his life in jail, his mother was beaten to a pulp by his stepfather, and his best friend was brutally murdered when he felt he was at rock bottom.
Despite those setbacks, he became a great success and he shared his inspirational story yesterday at the Bermuda Union of Teachers Conference at CedarBridge Academy.
Many of the audience were left in tears as Scott, a member of the Freedom Writer organisation, delivered a powerful speech designed to show that no matter how severe a child’s problems may be, they can still flourish given the love and guidance of a caring adult.
Scott’s destructive childhood led him to make bad choices and he began to take drugs, was homeless, and had no chance of finishing school.
Yesterday, Mr Scott stood on stage at CedarBridge Academy with a master’s degree under his belt, a doctorate on its way, and told the audience what a momentous difference an adult can make.
Mr Scott recalled some of the most painful times of his life to explain.
He said: “One day I heard my mama screaming ‘help me, he’s going to kill me!’
“I did everything to try to protect her and I lost. I ended up sleeping in strangers’ houses, on concrete floors in homeless centres with people who were addicted to drugs, alcoholics and women in prostitution.”
On one occasion, he tried to help his mother when she was being beaten and his stepfather threw him from the balcony leaving him with a serious injury, but his mother told him if he told the authorities, they would take him away.
On another occasion she was raped and he remembers her crying herself to sleep every single night.
One day a teacher at his school made him stand up in class and she asked him why his clothes were so dirty.
Mr Scott said: “She took me out of the class and I thought she was going to help me and find me some new clothes but she said ‘you stink and the other children are complaining. Get your act together or you will end up like your father’.”
Mr Scott ditched school at that point, started taking drugs and got into crime. He fell so far behind in English that teachers thought it was his second language.
Then his best friend Alex, a straight A student who used to lend Mr Scott his shoes, was murdered.
Mr Scott said: “It was then I just gave up. Alex was better and smarter than all of us. I thought if he couldn’t make it, none of us could.”
But a turning point came when Mr Scott was seated on a park bench and had a chance encounter with a crack addict who, with tears in his eyes, told him not to throw his life away like he had.
This encounter spurred him on to go back to school and ask for help. A teacher put him in touch with other teachers and counsellors. His grades went from Ds and Fs to As and Bs.
Mr Scott told the teachers’ union members: “I had a community of help from people like you.”
But one English teacher left a lasting impression on him. A “little white lady who lived in a gated community” who he called “Mrs G”.
Her syllabus was full of Shakespeare and Chaucer and the black students in his class asked what the literature had to do with them.
Mr Scott said Mrs G had her work cut out for her and one student bet he could make her cry by the end of the week.
She kept turning up and trying different things but the students continued to give her a hard time.
One day she bounded into the classroom and began dissecting lyrics by American rapper Tupac Shakur.
Mrs G quoted Tupac’s lyric from Only God Can Judge Me: “I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward.”
And she demonstrated how the language rules they had been taught were demonstrated by Tupac.
She also brought in work by rapper Snoop Dogg and Mr Scott remembered he said: “That’s iambic pentameter, fool!”
When Mrs G joked about “MC Shakespeare” she had won her students over.
Mr Scott said: “Humble yourself. You are not normal, you are culturally conditioned. You are evaluating through the lens of your cultural background.
“Your normal is not someone else’s normal. Mrs G studied us and incorporated her learning into her lesson plans.”
Mr Scott said he was inspired to pick up a journal and began writing, even though he was living in a car at the time.
Mrs G read what he had written and told him he had a gift.
Mr Scott said: “Now I have two degrees — one for me and one for Alex.”
But he added: “I don’t tell you this to impress you. I tell you this to impress upon you that you can change someone’s life.”
Speaking of the most despondent students who appear impossible to reach, Mr Scott said: “I am not the exception. I am aware of the challenges you face; there are people in this room who are tired and are seriously thinking about walking away.
“I hope to give you one reason to keep going. Many will say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
“You can lead a horse to water, and while you can’t make it drink, you can slap salt in his mouth and make him thirsty. Even on your worst day you can be someone’s last hope.”
Mr Scott was a founding member of the Freedom Writers, formed with help from a teacher by a group of disillusioned teenagers in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The riots broke out after four police officers caught on video beating a man called Rodney King were acquitted of serious assault charges.