Shine A Light

I had the opportunity to meet Elliot Perry last month, as part of the feature Richard Alley wrote for our January issue. The former NBA basketball player, a tall, thin man with a quiet intensity, had been invited to speak at a downtown charter school, Memphis College Preparatory Elementary School. On this December morning, as he folded himself into a tot-sized chair, he soon met the gaze of 15 eager young listeners, the students of Ashley Fox’s first grade class. They sat with rapt attention as Perry described his youth, growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis with his teenage mom and his grandparents, and attending Memphis City Schools. 

He spoke softly as he shared his message, periodically bending forward as if to take the children into his confidence. He emphasized the importance of learning, the importance of striving to do one’s best. 

His story has a familiar ring, which helps to make his stand for education more impassioned. Because Perry’s life could have gone in another direction. He could have wound up on the streets or working a manual job after high school, or fathering a child. But his tenacious work ethic, his love of basketball, and a desire to create something more for himself helped him make different choices — choices that put his dreams within reach.

Perry echoes what many teachers and parents have long preached, that education provides a ticket to another way of life, often, a better way of life. Part of the reason Perry delivers this message with such conviction is because he wants to inspire the kids and adults he meets. He wants to drive home the importance of showing kids life’s possibilities. And he wants to shine a light on education reform that is at work in our city, hence the title of his program, Education Champions.

Perry told me he grew up in a neighborhood where the value of education wasn’t universally recognized or embraced. There weren’t a host of adults with college degrees working salaried jobs on his street. There were too few people in his life that exemplified what one could achieve beyond high school. And so, he was the first person in his family to earn a college degree. While that accomplishment makes him proud, it also speaks to how his message still needs to be delivered.

“When I was growing up, education was this abstracted idea,” he says, one that didn’t have much bearing on the day-to-day lives of his neighbors, people who, when they were employed, often worked long hours or held more than one job just to make ends meet. 

Instead, he was fortunate enough to meet another kid from down the street whose own direction planted a seed of hope. It was a teenager in his neighborhood who was attending college at Memphis State University while Perry was still in elementary school. The notion of becoming a college student might have seemed distant and foreign at the time, but seeing his friend in class suddenly made this vague notion a more concrete possibility. It demystified the idea of college. He saw students who looked like him in class. It showed him what could be achieved when you established goals and worked towards them. Talking to people about the doors that could be opened once a college degree was in-hand showed a light down a path that he might not have traveled otherwise. 

I can appreciate his message. I have a teenager who bridles at the thought of having to learn math theorems and chemistry tables. “Why do I need to know this stuff?” he asks querulously. Because, I say, it will broaden your knowledge base, it will prepare you for what lies ahead (blah, blah, blah, he hears). Yet that is what education is about, broadening our abilities, helping us discover our talents, pushing us to gain the knowledge that will help make better sense of the world around us. 

My son and I also discuss his plans for college, and the steps he needs to take to eventually achieve his goals. Do this with your children, too. Encourage their efforts in school, help them explore life’s possibilities. Dream.

For Perry stands on the path of enlightenment, shining a light for others to follow, to believe in the dream of a better tomorrow.  

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