When Waynel Sexton, George Floyd’s second grade teacher at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, closed up her unit on Black History Month in 1982, she asked her class, “Well, we have studied all these famous people. What kind of famous person will you be in the future?” George Floyd wanted to be Thurgood Marshall who had, in 1967, become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
“When people say, Your honor, he did rob the bank,” Floyd wrote in his second grade composition, “I will say, Be seated. And if he doesn’t, I will tell the guard to take him out. Then I will beat my hammer on the desk. Then everybody will be quiet.” In Floyd’s boyhood imagination, we never see a reference to the color of one’s skin. Instead, he shows us how, in his court, any rush to judgement is quashed by the judge — “Then everybody will be quiet.” Presumably, one anticipates, an orderly hearing marked by equality will unfold.
Today, however, we wonder what happened to George Floyd’s boyhood dream.
As we open Pride Month, Floyd’s dream deferred has become a collective call for what he once envisioned, a nation of possibility, one that could rise up to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” But such lofty dreams are only attained through access to quality education.
Education transforms lives and communities, which makes Waynel Sexton’s question to her second graders nearly four decades ago as powerful then as it remains today. Like all great teachers, Waynel Sexton, in her question, extended an invitation to her students to rise to the occasion of their best selves. And she does so to all of us today.
“But before he was a horrific video image, an entry in the history of injustice, George Floyd was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and came to Houston with his mother when he was very young. He was raised in the Cuney Homes, a housing project in the Third Ward, a historically black neighborhood. In 1981-82, a woman named Waynel Sexton was Floyd’s second-grade teacher, at Frederick Douglass Elementary School. After hearing of Floyd’s death, Sexton posted on Facebook a facsimile of her pupil’s composition for Black History Month: “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court Judge,” Floyd wrote. “When people say, Your honor, he did rob the bank, I will say, Be seated. And if he doesn’t, I will tell the guard to take him out. Then I will beat my hammer on the desk. Then everybody will be quiet.”
Education is our hope. Equality for all.
Dr. Delano Copprue
Note: All quotations, with the exception of the excerpt from Abraham Lincoln, are drawn from David Remnick’s “American Uprising,” from the May 31, 2020 Daily Comment section of The New Yorker.