I have to confess.
I enthusiastically agreed to write this piece.
It seemed as if it would be easy to write about my life, a part that was as formative as it was unpredictable.
The truth is, I was completely at a loss for how to actually put into words my 7th and 8th grade years in Arlington, Texas.
At first, I thought I would tie in school choice.
I figured it’s a hot topic in our current political climate, and I have plenty of thoughts on the issue.
Then, I decided I would write it as if it were a platform; I’d persuade you to my side with tales from my childhood.
Instead, I’ve chosen to write you a letter.
This letter is addressed to all those who have ever feared the unknown, that have ever gone off of a preconception rather than waited for an actual personal experience, that have ever been proven right, that have ever been proven wrong, and that have ever realized that learning doesn’t stop just because you’re no longer in school.
This is for you.
My name is Bradley Pennington, and I was raised in the south as a white student in a black majority junior high.
At the time, I’m not sure this particular experience stood out as extraordinary to me, but it has come to mean a great deal.
I had no way of knowing, but the two years I spent at this school would have a lasting impact on me for years to come.
You see; an education does not consist of only the things you learn in the classroom, but also of the things you learn in the hallway, out on the parking lot, and on your walk home.
I learned innumerable lessons at this school, but I will stick to recounting three of the most valuable lessons.
The first lesson I learned was how to communicate, not only with people and about topics I was comfortable with, but also with strangers about topics that would often push me outside of my narrow view of the world and into a space where I could better learn and grow.
There’s something tremendously valuable about the coming together of multiple cultures.
There’s something equally valuable, if not slightly more chaotic, about the the coming together of multiple 14 year olds.
In any given day, I would be prompted to explain the way my family did things and hear the stories of how my classmates’ families conducted themselves.
It wasn’t the differences that stood out, but rather, the similarities.
And within those similarities, I learned about universal truths; the want of a child to make their parents proud, the need for familial love regardless of whether the need is met, and the pursuit of fulfillment in life.
It is through these basic needs, that my communication skills began to blossom.
I went from being shy and nervous, to knowing exactly where I could find a commonality with a stranger.
I was now blessed with the skill of conversation. I could talk to friends, enemies, strangers, adults, kids, and anyone in between because I had finally had my eyes open to something different and realized, that at our core, differences fade and we all end up desperately seeking the same things.
The second lesson I learned was that passion is the secret ingredient in the recipe of happiness.
I’ll be honest and say that my junior high wasn’t always the easiest place to learn.
The school served the highest priced homes in the city and the homeless shelters simultaneously.
I fell in the middle of that group and never knew either extreme intimately.
With the vastly different background of the students came behavior problems.
There were students who had to be concerned more with where their next meal would come from than the Pythagorean theorem.
Likewise, there were students whose entitlement stood in the way of their ability to learn those valuable lessons outside of the classroom; the social and emotional lessons.
Neither of these groups were truly responsible for their hindrances, but the burden nonetheless fell to the same people; the teachers.
And as I watched many of the teachers deal with the 16 hours outside of the classroom just as much as the 8 hours within the walls of the school building, I learned about putting your passion into action.
True happiness can only come from finding what you want to do and seeking it with a reckless abandon.
The teachers were stakeholders; they mentored, they educated, they loved, and they sacrificed.
Every day that I wake up, I pray that I can be half as passionate as them.
The last lesson is one more spiritual in nature.
I learned that fate, or God in my belief, puts us right where we need to be at any given moment.
Had my parents had another option, they may not have placed me at this particular junior high.
There were other, more prestigious junior highs in the city, and I was a young man that had an affinity for learning.
But had I not been there, I don’t know that my eyes would have ever been fully opened to the world around me.
I was challenged at this school.
The teachers didn’t care that some of their students walked in the door having all the resources in the world at their disposal while others walked in without a single pencil; they expected our best, consistently.
I was made to give up on making excuses because mine weren’t as good as some and any excuse I could think of had surely already been told before.
And ultimately, I learned that is our shared responsibility on this earth to do right by each other.
No one is going to make it through this life alone.
There is no use in cutting ourselves off from new opportunity and new friendship.
I was destined to be at that school because it would play a major role in who I would become.
Would I have learned these lessons at any other school?
I have no way of knowing that.
But I do know this: Diversity breeds intuitiveness, and intuitiveness leads to understanding.
Often times our world leaves us wishing people had more understanding for their fellow man.
I wish everyone could have an experience like I did.
Being the minority, even if it’s only for 8 hours a day, opens your eyes and allows you to see the world for what it is.
I treasure my days in junior high because they ultimately taught me about humanity.
So my advice to you is to reach out to someone you would have never thought about talking to before.
Make time for personal growth and learning.
The world can be your classroom and every person you encounter has the chance to be your teacher.
You’ll never know until you are far enough removed from a situation whether it was one that can transform you forever.
RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.
Cover Photo Credit: justine warrington/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)