In a Class by Himself

The first day my new teacher walked into our school in Spanish Harlem, I burst out laughing. Ron Clark was

The first day my new teacher walked into our school in Spanish Harlem, I burst out laughing. Ron Clark was this young white guy from North Carolina who talked with a funny Southern accent. He said he used to be a singing waiter. I thought, Who is this guy? He’s a complete joke.

It was 1999 and I was in the fifth grade at New York City’s P.S. 83. I figured I’d spend most of the year in the principal’s office. I’d always been a troublemaker. I’d get yelled at, and then the teachers would give up on me. I thought that’s what would happen with Ron Clark.

I was wrong. That first week, I kept mocking him. He hauled me out to the hallway and said I’d better shape up. “Tamara,” he said, “you’re a smart kid. You can do better.”

He told me I was a natural leader and that I’d go far in life if I started applying myself. I was mad at first, but then something happened: I began to respect him. There were 29 students in our class, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that Ron Clark was no ordinary teacher.

He was only 27 and had the most unusual way of teaching. To help us learn the states and capitals, he changed the lyrics of a popular rap hit called “Thong Song” and had us sing and dance with him. When we read the Harry Potter books, he decorated our classroom like Hogwarts. And during the Presidential election, he put campaign posters on the walls and covered the room with 5,000 red, white and blue stars.

Like most teachers, he had lots of rules: Treat each other like family. Don’t butt in line. But the real difference was how involved he was. Mr. Clark ate with us in the lunchroom instead of going to the teachers’ lounge. At first, my friends and I were thinking, What is he doing?

He asked us what was going on in our lives. At recess, he came outside with us, and we taught him how to jump rope. When it snowed, Mr. Clark, who’d never seen snow before, pelted us with snowballs, and we pelted him back.

Before coming to P.S. 83, he taught at Snowden Elementary in his hometown, Belhaven, North Carolina. His parents were DJs at dance clubs, so he grew up with music and energy. He wanted a life of adventure, he told me, but his mom encouraged him to apply for a position at Snowden when one of the teachers passed away. Mr. Clark ended up loving it. He came to Harlem because he’d seen a TV show about our troubled schools and the lack of qualified teachers. He wanted a challenge. Boy, did he get one.

When I met him, I had a lot of anger inside of me. I’ve lived my whole life in Spanish Harlem with my mom, grandmother and little sister, Ivy. I never had a father, but in my neighborhood that’s not unusual. You have to watch yourself. There are shoot-ups all the time. I know kids who have been shot or beaten up. I have friends who ended up in jail or pregnant. I could have ended up that way, too, but Mr. Clark and my mom wouldn’t let that happen.

Mr. Clark worked long hours, making sure I did my work. My grades rose. In fact, our whole fifth-grade class’s scores rose in math and reading. In sixth grade, I entered the gifted program, and Mr. Clark was the teacher. I felt so lucky to have him for a second year!

He took our class to see The Phantom of the Opera, and it was the first time some kids had ever been out of Harlem. Before the show, he treated us to dinner at a restaurant and taught us not to talk with our mouths full — stuff you don’t usually learn in the ghetto. He told us to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” We didn’t want to let him down.

None of us were surprised when Mr. Clark was selected as Disney’s 2000 Teacher of the Year. When he learned he’d won, he said he would draw three names out of a hat; those students would go with him to Los Angeles to get the award. But when it came time to draw names, Mr. Clark said, “You’re all going.”

He got donations to fly all 37 of us out to Disneyland in California and put us up at the Hilton. We were there for three days. People were amazed, but Mr. Clark really cared about us. There’s no way I can imagine most teachers doing that. No way. But he saw something in us that nobody else saw.

On graduation day, there were a lot of tears. We didn’t want his class to end. Was I ever surprised when Mr. Clark showed up at my new junior high the first week of school, just to say hello. He’s been a constant in our lives. In 2001, he moved to Atlanta, but he always kept in touch. He started giving speeches about education, and wrote a bestselling book based on his classroom rules, The Essential 55.

In 2003, Mr. Clark took some of us on a trip to South Africa to deliver school supplies and visit orphanages. It was the most amazing experience of my life. It’s now my dream to one day start a group of women’s clubs, helping people from all backgrounds.

I’m about to become a senior at Harlem Renaissance High School. My grades are beautiful now, and I’m hoping to go to law school eventually. This fall, Mr. Clark will be opening the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, a school for kids who have potential but aren’t reaching it. Kids who are like I was — until Mr. Clark came along.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest