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Miami Dade County School Days... Then and Now

Enthusiastic student ready to attend to school and meet her new teachers.

Miami Dade County School Teachers, the true pillars of our society.

As I dropped my middle schooler off on her first day of school this year, a rush of memories, thoughts, and sentiments popped up. 

My daughter goes to a public, charter middle school and has been attending Miami Dade County Public Schools since kindergarten.  The change in local public schools since the days when I attended is marked and quite noticeable. I went to school in Hialeah in the 70’s and 80’s—the school system and Miami as a whole was in flux. The city was plagued by a failing economy (only bolstered by dope money), uncontrolled and unplanned immigration.  The highest crime stats we’d ever experienced, as well as rising ethnic and race tensions.  Schools were certainly not exempt from the residual effects of these challenges.

The Miami Dade school system was stretched beyond its means. It also didn’t help that we had a superintendent (Johnny Jones) who was stealing school district funds and a teachers’ union leader (Pat Tornillo) swindling funds from the syndicate. 

1980 was the pinnacle of madness.  It was the summer of the Mariel Boatlift, the McDuffie riots, boatloads of Haitians washing up on South Florida shores and a burgeoning strange, immunological epidemic which was seemingly only affecting gay men. That fateful year, I was a student at Palm Springs Junior High in Hialeah. The school was operating on split shifts (7:15 am to noon and 12:30 to 5:30).  Facilities were coming apart at the seams and superhero performance was required from teachers who were severely underpaid (and still are) and working in less than idyllic conditions.

Amidst the turmoil and impossible odds, we were blessed to have some teachers that accepted the superhero task and rose above the conditions. Mrs. Nancy Williams comes to mind.  She was a middle aged, white, Anglo woman teaching in the most ethnic of place and yet somehow she fit right in. Mrs. Williams was strict—tardiness, cutting up in class and dangling participles were not acceptable and she was a stickler for grammar but more importantly she understood the value of sharing a good work ethic and a plentiful dose of self-worth. I gained a tremendous amount of confidence from Mrs. Williams English class.  As I entered high school, I knew that regardless of my less than stellar academic pedigree, I could write an essay and coherently and succinctly express my thoughts, Mrs. Williams told me so. 

Today, the significance of teachers remains.  Miami is still less than idyllic if you’re rearing a family.  We don’t have the same issues tearing us apart—we have a new set of civic and political obstacles to contend with.  My middle schooler (and all middle schoolers) needs an angel like Mrs. Williams to guide and educate her. Fortunately.  In the era of fast facts, smart phones and Instagram, many teachers take the time to get to know their students and thus better help mold them into young adults.  The importance of a stable, disciplined, structured, educational home life for a young person is imperative so the parents are still the most significant contributors in a child’s upbringing, however, outside of the home, teachers and sometimes coaches become the primary shapers of children. 

As we start a new school year, I celebrate the little or at least not enough, recognized pillars of our society, teachers.  Hope springs eternal for every student the first few weeks of class. I see it and sense it my daughter. Her inquisitive mind is ready to explore as she eagerly enters another phase in her life—the pre-teen years which for many Cubans (including my Mom) is called “la edad de la peseta”.   It is that not so fun age when kids are less respondent, grumpier and pull away from mom and dad seeking independence. Hillary Clinton got it right when she titled her book “It Takes a Village”. Teamwork is essential in a kid’s development and a good group of teachers should be at the core of that team.  Hats off to the educators, our true superheroes. 

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