A Lifeline for Democracy | Facing History & Ourselves

A Lifeline for Democracy

In her 2005 commencement speech at the University of Vermont, Ruth Simmons  describes experiences that helped her escape the poverty and discrimination of her youth to become the president of Brown University.
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English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Racism

Ruth Simmons was born into an East Texas family of sharecroppers in the 1940s. In her 2005 commencement speech at the University of Vermont, excerpted here, she describes experiences that helped her escape the poverty and discrimination of her youth to become the president of Brown University.

In my estimation, there is no greater benefit to a child nor greater boon to any nation than the provision of education to every citizen. Education develops intellectual resources, makes possible the advancement of knowledge helpful to society’s well-being, and assures the innovation so necessary to ongoing economic vitality. Education prompts the development of capacities that would often otherwise lie fallow, and nurtures a respect for reason and civility, both important to maintaining peace and stability throughout the world. As a personal benefit, education helps one establish a healthy relationship with the broader world. For me, education has done all of this and so much more. Rescuing me from intellectual hunger and deprivation, it has given me the tools to understand the context into which I was born, and positioned me to surpass the limitations imposed on me by history and circumstance. . . .

In 1951 when I started grade school in rural East Texas, the America that I knew was penuriously exploitative, shockingly bigoted, deeply and hypocritically divided along racial lines, and headed for national disaster. My father and mother were living at the time in a small four-room house atop a knoll overlooking the sprawling, fertile cotton fields where they worked as laborers. Neither of them had been schooled beyond the eighth grade. Eleven children had preceded me in our household, so when I arrived there were naturally expressions of exasperation by the older children who understood the consequences of yet another mouth to feed. I was delivered by Miss Addie Bryant, who, as a midwife, was one of the most respected people in our small community. In a community where no one was well educated, a midwife was considered to be in the upper echelon of society. My older sisters and brothers had only occasional opportunity to attend school; the primary responsibility of everyone in our sharecropping family, including the smallest children, was to harvest cotton so, when there was work to do in the fields, school attendance suffered. As a result, few of us were able to attend school with enough frequency to graduate from high school.

But I was lucky. I began school at a time when the cotton gin was taking hold, causing sharecroppers to seek opportunities for employment in cities. Before my parents would make the move to Houston, where I received most of my schooling, I was introduced to education at W. R. Banks School for Colored Children. That first year was an introduction to a world that I could scarcely believe existed: a world where brawn had little bearing, where winning was encouraged, and where no limitations marred achievement. Little could I have imagined the path that I would take as a result of Miss Ida Mae initiating me into a new and exciting world of learning.

Miss Ida Mae Henderson was renowned for her teaching. I don’t know if the principal deliberately chose her for first graders because of her inviting personality but everyone I have heard speak of her lights up when they recall their time in Miss Ida Mae’s class. What struck one most about her persona was her extraordinary enthusiasm for her students. I had never met anyone so enthusiastic about learning and so full of fervor for the achievement of children. Imagine a rag tag group of poor country children, dressed in tatters, wearing shoes held together with string and minimally nourished. Now imagine them, too, sitting in a bright, cheerfully decorated classroom with a teacher whose attitude and voice bespoke joy at the presence of these children. If you can imagine this miracle, you can possibly appreciate why the sunshine from Miss Ida Mae’s voice and smile transfixed us, making us want to bask in that kind of radiance, hopefulness and confidence forever. That is how I came to love learning, by watching someone else who had been infused with the spirit of learning.

Miss Ida Mae was the first person I met who was college educated and, although I did not understand at the time why she was so different from anything I had ever known, I knew that education had wrought something wondrous in her. That something was a delight in learning and in imparting that knowledge to others. The luminescence that radiated from her respect and enthusiasm for learning drew us in. Absorbing her every instruction, I worked hard to secure abundant praise from her, and was convinced that something momentous was happening to my life now that she was in it. With her as my tour guide, I thought I had been given keys to a magic kingdom long before I heard of Walt Disney’s. In this kingdom, I was free to go anywhere without worrying about racial restrictions. All the limitations my parents had known fell away as I grasped the power of my mind to push aside the barriers they had experienced and had anticipated for me.

Arriving in Houston the next year, I discovered miraculously that Miss Ida Mae was not the only teacher who was dedicated, uplifting, forceful and self-confident. There were many others with high standards, excellent skills and charismatic personalities who were everyday models for life. Mrs. Caraway, Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Parish, Mr. Saunders, Mrs. Lillie and so many more like them filled my years of public school with admonitions concerning hard work and high attainment. These teachers, working in the inner city schools, did the work of social workers, philanthropists, mentors, counselors, advocates, civic icons, and moral exemplars. They formed a tightly knit network of care that kept communities going and, most importantly, kept the promise of social change and civil rights alive. Through their efforts, change did come.

I recall this story every day as a reminder of the power of education. . . . Learning makes possible the most daunting and elusive change. If you have not discovered that yet, you will learn it in myriad ways over the coming years. Because you have enlarged your reach through learning, you will have the opportunity to influence others in the way teachers changed my life. The light that shone from Miss Ida Mae has lit my path for over forty years. What is the light that you will shine for others? By the way you respect yourself and others? By the way you care for your family? By the openness you have to difference? By the gratitude and humility you show for what you have been given? By the winning spirit that you bring to everything you do? . . .

Teachers remain at the heart of any education that takes root on the one hand and uplifts on the other. They do not merely provide tools or point out which path to take on this voyage. They pack our bags, set us on our way, and give us maps for the most scenic ride of our lives. Along the way we see the history of the world unfold. We see the beauty of what god and man have produced. We learn the elements of design and harmony that give greater meaning and enjoyment to our lives. We see how problems are solved and conflicts are abated. We see the tragic consequences of bigotry, want, and human degradation. Each of us has had a moment of recognition when we understood the value of learning. To have a guide in that process who not only leads us to shore but repeatedly casts us back upon the sea until we can find our own way back to shore is of defining importance. Teaching, wherever it occurs, is a lifeline for individuals, communities, nations, the world. 1

  • 1 Ruth J. Simmons, speech presented at the University of Vermont (Burlington, VT), May 29, 2005 (accessed Oct. 10, 2014).

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "A Lifeline for Democracy," last updated March 14, 2016.

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information. 

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