It is in our nature to imitate. A newborn hours old, eyes affixed to its parent, will stick out its tongue in response to its parent doing the same. Likewise, we take in the moral behavior around us. From Aesop’s Fables to religious parables, we instruct through stories that illustrate rather than simply prescribe right ways of living. Even that ultimate of moral lists, the Ten Commandments, is nested between the story of the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery and the orgiastic worship of the golden calf. It is as if the Commandments themselves penetrate our psyches only through the stories of human interaction surrounding them.
Hungering for examples of the good, we start with those closest to us – our parents, extended family, teachers, sitters, housekeepers, co-workers, neighbors. Later we might be voracious readers of others’ lives. For me, Studs Terkel and Robert Coles illuminate real heroes – people who are inspiring not by virtue of inherited wealth and social position, but by courageously doing the right thing. These leaders may be bus drivers or school teachers, grandmothers or small town journalists.
“Suddenly and surprisingly we can become an example to others – or others to us,” writes Coles in Lives of Moral Leaders. “They hand us along, become a source of moral encouragement to us, arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked, and they have the will to act in pursuit of purposes we have come to regard as important.”
We often rise to the occasion when preparation – becoming our best selves – meets opportunity. This is what I see in Wilmette resident Sherry Medwin, a retired English teacher with thirty-two years at New Trier High School under her belt, who tutored an illiterate African refugee teenaged girl toward her high school diploma at Evanston Township High School earlier this month. But that was only a starting point, as Sherry, along with others, met Matennah on her own terms while navigating her through our cultural maze. Sherry “handed her along” to the point where Matennah in a fluent English could say at her graduation celebration in Sherry’s back yard, “I will keep reaching for more.”
“I hold dear to the principle that everyone can learn,” says Sherry. When she was at New Trier she instinctively knew that operating under such a principle means learning to “flex” based on where the student is. At New Trier, the ESL department sent Asian immigrant students who knew little English her way after her success in supplementing required books like Brave New World with rigorous journal writing. Sherry once had a student with severe dyslexia whom others on the faculty balked at teaching. But this boy knew the kind of individualized learning he needed, and Sherry and he devised meaningful criteria to measure his achievement. He went on to graduate from American University and they remain in contact.
Sherry recognized that she herself was the beneficiary of good teachers from seventh grade on, when she was accepted into the University of Chicago Lab School. As the youngest sibling, her family did not layer expectations, so getting challenging assignments in school “really transformed [her].”
Before retiring, Sherry created the (now defunct) Trunk Project at New Trier, in which each senior advisory put together an off-to-college trunk of supplies for a Chicago Public School student and met with that student for a college orientation workshop. Now she coaches CPS students going off to college through a non-profit organization started by a New Trier alum, called US Empowered. I met Sherry when she joined the leadership team of United We Learn, a grassroots north suburban campaign that coalesced in 2007 to address the pervasive inequities between Chicago and suburban school systems.
With Matennah, Sherry adopted a slow building process. A teacher’s challenge is to “build a bridge between what the student knows and what you want them to do.” To do this, “you need to know where they’re at first.”
At age 13 in early 2007, Matennah came to Chicago directly from a refugee camp in Sierra Leone, several years after having left war-torn Liberia with her father, stepmother, and ten siblings and step-siblings. They were brought here by a faith-based agency, which worked with interested Wilmette neighbors to secure a large rental home in that suburb, collect furniture and clothes, and even secure a job for the father, Lamin Fahnbulleh, as a janitor at Central Elementary School. Matennah was enrolled directly into seventh grade at the Junior High School.
Pat Pappageorge, then a parent leader at Central, coordinated individualized tutoring for all the younger children at the school. Like Sherry, Pat is modest about her own role and emphasizes relationship over charity. “My heart was open at that moment and I had the wherewithal to do it. They found me. We don’t ‘work with’ them; they are family.”
Sherry met Matennah in October 2007, responding to an e-mail to retired teachers from a woman who was assisting the girl’s disabled brother. Sherry responded to this “call for help” and in fact, it was Pat who brought Matennah to the Wilmette library for her first session. In four years, Matennah never missed a tutoring appointment.
Those years were not easy. Matennah cried for her mother who was left behind in Africa. She knew no English. She lived through a move from Wilmette to Evanston; a house fire; and the pressure to care for her younger siblings.
In what Sherry describes as a Cinderella story, Matennah also withstood accusations of “stupidity” from her family.
“What really drove my commitment to Matennah was when her step-mother said Matennah can never learn,” said Sherry. Lamin had “tears in his eyes” when he told Sherry the story. “As a thirty-two year veteran of teaching, to hear someone ‘can’t learn’ made me dig in.”
When the family moved to Evanston, Sherry got the family beach passes and enrolled all the children in school. But she sensed that Matennah needed to get away from her unsupportive environment. Sherry worked with the YMCA to enroll her in Camp Echo. The two exchanged letters throughout that first summer. Little by little, the girl learned the language and, despite her shyness, began making friends. By this past year she was a Counselor in Training at the camp.
Sherry became a fairy godmother to Matennah. “When the fire caught in my apartment,” writes Matennah in a writing assignment she and Sherry shared with me, “Sherry was the first person I called to inform… She made a plan for me and my sisters to do some shopping for clothes. She took us to Citi Trends and let us pick our own clothes. I really appreciated that.”
Matennah told me that she likes working with children. She wants to go to Truman or Oakton College to become an early childhood educator. “Sherry changed my whole life just by giving me an education,” writes Matennah.
I asked Sherry whether she thinks of herself as a moral leader. “I am not a moral leader in any sense,” she said to me. “I’m doing what feels good, what feels right. I think of myself as an educator.” She points out that Aristotle wrote that each one of us has a particular “function.” “Happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” which is the “good and noble performance” of that function, observes the philosopher.
To her, Henry David Thoreau was a true moral leader for being willing to go to jail for the sake of principle. It is “revolutionary” to act for all that is good and right.
Sherry adds in an understated way, “Because I don’t have the wealth, I use the skills I have.”
Separately, I asked each woman for a final thought.
Matennah: “Education is the key to happiness.”
Sherry: “I am happiest when I am teaching.”
I think again of Robert Coles: “Suddenly and surprisingly we can become an example to others – or others to us.”