Kentucky School Advocate
Advocate Staff Report
A man on a park bench. A lunch lady. A teacher whose background was completely different from his own. Manny Scott got encouragement – perhaps saving his life – from unlikely sources.
The former high school dropout told his story during the brunch closing session of the KSBA annual conference. As a teenager, he said, “I was convinced that the last paragraph of my life’s story had been written. There is no future for me.”
Scott’s mother had been murdered, as had his best friend. His father was incarcerated. “I was out of school doing stupid stuff, getting chased by police,” he said.
Then, a chance encounter with a crack addict who sat down beside him on a park bench in Long Beach, Calif., turned him around. He said the stranger warned him, “‘Man, don’t be like me. I used to have a good life, I had a beautiful wife and a baby girl, but I threw it all away. Man, go to church, go to school. You’re going to get hurt. Don’t be like me.’”
Scott decided he did want more out of life and to take responsibility for it. “I decided that while I could not control what happened to me, I could control my response to it. There, on that park bench, I realized that if anything in my life was going to change, I had to change. Because the alternative was terrible.”
He re-enrolled in high school and found encouragement from others, including, he said, a lunch lady who “barely spoke English.”
“I was walking by and she said, ‘Hey, come. Come.’ I walked up to her and she grabbed my cheeks and she said, ‘You’re going to be some great. Just stick it out.’ She’ll never know how much I needed that that day.”
One teacher in particular helped him. Erin Gruwell’s English class, which Scott was part of, went on to become known as the Freedom Writers, portrayed in the 2007 movie of the same name.
Gruwell worked at trying to reach her students, he said.
“She’d try something new and it didn’t work. But she kept showing up. She humbled herself. She became a student of her students. She studied us as an anthropologist studies culture and looks for ways in. She didn’t lower her standards; she changed her methods to get us up to her standards,” Scott said.
One day she walked in on fire. She said, ‘I want to tell you something that Toopack Shaker said.’ (Laughter). We were like, ‘Ms. G, it’s Tupac Shakur.’ She said, ‘He said, ‘I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward; there’s a ghetto up in heaven and it’s ours.’
“She didn’t tell us that she disdained rap as being misogynistic, materialistic and superficial, because you’ll never reach anyone if you vilify what’s important to them. So she became a student of us, using and dissecting Tupac and Diggie and Snoop, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Anne Frank. She started teaching us about voice and metaphors and alliteration.”
Gruwell then had the class write in journals, and Scott wrote about his life experiences and his dreams. “One day I walked into class and she stopped me and said, ‘Manny, you’ve got a gift. You’ve got a gift with words. You’ve got to go to college.’ And she said, “I’ll help you.’”
With Gruwell’s backing, Scott graduated high school and college, earned a masters’ degree and is now working on doctorate. He’s married with three children, and lectures 200 days a year in schools and to groups.
“Today I tell students, you can be anything you want to be in life,” he said. “Everyone in your life is a wing or a weight. You cut those weights but you cling to those wings, those teachers who love you.
“If you will renew your commitment to love and serve, young people everywhere can flourish and realize their own infinite possibilities, then you’re living. Hollywood won’t make a movie about you, but you’re living. It shall not be in vain.”