I'm Not Giving Up On You
How one dad's dogged dedication is changing kids lives
As a kid, Ray Dockery once believed he wasn’t capable of success. But several teachers challenged his beliefs. They dared him to play the saxophone and to reach for As in his senior English class.
With hard work, Ray achieved those goals, and began to imagine a bright future. But he wouldn’t alter his childhood, even if he could. His insecurities and confusion gave him a heart for special work.
Strolling the hallways at Hamilton Middle School, the 46-year-old Dockery wears a white polo shirt that identifies him as a fellow charged with a special mission. The shirt’s WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) logo features a cartoonish canine with a pair of eyeglasses propped on its nose. With a warm smile, Dockery jokes, giving high-fives, and setting kids on a higher path. He has shared six powerful words with hundreds of kids in Memphis City Schools:
“I’m not giving up on you.”
A retired Navy operations specialist and former police officer, Ray knows how to achieve success, and he shares his life experience with kids. For 12 years, he has been here every day, from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. No pay. Instead, he volunteers — for kids who don’t have a guiding male voice, for kids who live in homes filled with too much yelling, for kids who live in the silent vacuum where dads are missing in action.
“Being a WATCH D.O.G. is a chance to make a difference in a child’s life,” Ray says. “I can’t work as a disabled veteran, so this is how I give back.” But, “You have to love kids to be in this program,” he allows. “The payoff is that you’ll get a lot of love and hugs and save a lot of lives. What we do is real simple. We’re not security guards or police officers. We’re here to support the teachers and school and to mentor to the kids. A lot of kids simply want someone to listen to them.”
Volunteers try to help kids stay on track, encouraging them to avoid suspensions and improve grades. They’re fighting against the peril of drugs, gang activity, and poverty.
“WATCH D.O.G.S. makes a big difference in schools,” Ray says. Boys in particular need guidance. “A young woman can’t teach a young boy how to be a man. Somewhere down the line, that young man needs some type of male figure to step in and say, ‘You need to do A, B, and C.’” Currently, Ray is focused on starting a program at Hamilton Middle School, a school with 296 students. “If you know Ray, you know that he loves his own children,” notes school secretary Mary Saulsberry. “And that reflects on the way he treats children.”
“We are elated to have Ray,” adds LaJuana Cole, Hamilton Middle’s assistant principal. “He does a wonderful job with our young men — and even our young ladies.” Ray’s 18-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son Christian know their dad’s caring firsthand. Daughter Raebin, along with Mary Saulsberry, nominated him for the 2012 National Father of the Year Award presented by the Committed Fathers Alliance.
In her nominating letter, Raebin wrote, “There were many times when I thought he was mean, too overprotective, and needed to let loose. I still think that now, but if there is one thing I can say, ‘My dad is always there for me.’”
Ray won, becoming the first Tennessean to claim the honor. At the ceremony in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “I started crying when my daughter came up to the stage.” There were damp eyes in the audience, too.
Never tell Ray that any child is a lost cause. In the past, school staff told him he was wasting his time with certain students, yet kids like seventh-grader Alzavius Turner are thriving under Ray’s watchful eye. “He has made an awesome, 80-degree turnaround,” says Ray. “He had a bad attitude, some anger, and several suspensions. The first month, he was still getting into trouble. I got on his case and reminded him to go to school and work on his grades. I’ve told him to think about what he does before he does it.”
Alzavius is now earning As at school. He plays drums in the school band and hopes to be a professional football player. Despite “a full plate of challenges at home,” Alzavius is walking a new path.
Ray calls on folks in the community to help steer students. “I ask, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ If a student tells me he’d like to be a police officer, I say, ‘You’re breaking the law and acting a fool. Everything you do from eighth grade on can follow you your whole life.’” Ray asked retired police officer Claudette Boyd to counsel one confused girl. To the girl’s surprise, Boyd offered to be her mentor. Ray even has a mentor of his own, a fellow dad named Robert Johnson whom he met at the National Fatherhood Convention.
Since each school must fundraise to support the program, Ray organizes bowling competitions and golf tournaments. A class that earns As and Bs or boasts perfect attendance enjoys a pizza party, or perhaps even a trip to the Clinton Museum in Little Rock. This spring, Ray will attend 12 high school graduation ceremonies to celebrate successes of former students. At Craigmont High, his own daughter, Raebin, will cross the stage to receive her diploma. He says he might take a break until his son starts kindergarten. But then the plan is to serve until his son graduates, too. After all, there are plenty more kids worth saving.
NEEDED: HEROES OF THE HALLWAYS WATCH D.O.G.S. is a father involvement, educational initiative of the National Center for Fathering. The volunteer program was introduced in 1998 in Memphis City Schools, which became the first urban school system to offer it. The program is now in 77 Memphis city schools.
Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and others volunteer each school year. Duties range from monitoring the school entrance and unloading buses, to overseeing the cafeteria and helping in the classroom. “Do it once a year, every month, whatever you can do,” urges Ray. “I tell dads that my daughter maintained a high GPA and had no suspensions while I volunteered in the program.”
‘Real Dads, Real Men’ is a slogan used by local volunteers. “Some of us live for weekends, hang with buddies, get our haircuts, and make sure the car is clean. Why not take that same energy and say, ‘I need to spend some time with my kids.’ It will make a big difference,” says Ray.
To get involved, contact your school or the Division of Parent and Community Engagement, 416-7264. For more information, visit fathers.com.