One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touch our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of a child.
– Carl Jung
The tallest tree in the world is the redwood tree. Yet, before it ever reached for the heavens it too started as a simple seed shaped and molded by the love of the environment around it. While I am no means in the league of a redwood the ability to be on my way is in large part the foundation given to me by Wee Care Elementary located in the shadow of Prairie View A&M University, the owner and principal Mrs. Leverett who is an alum of Arkansas Pine-Bluff, and my kindergarten and 1st grade teacher Frank Chesson, who is an alum of Prairie View A&M University. It would be the only time in my academic life that I would have an African-American principal and the only time I had an African American male teacher until I reached my first HBCU.
Wee Care, Principal Leverett, and Mr. Chesson mostly were teaching the children of professors and staff from the campus. A lot of us later would be known as the “Campus Brat Crew”, children of faculty and staff who would roam the campus of Prairie View A&M University during our school holidays and summers. For most of us, the adolescence bonding would begin though within the walls of Wee Care under the guidance of Mrs. Leverett’s leadership and Mr. Chesson’s tutelage. The school itself was an old house convert; it would serve as the holding area, offices, cafeteria, and daycare for infants whose mothers on campus had returned to work. The temporary trailer, that previously had been a bookstore, was located in what otherwise would have been the backyard housed our kindergarten and 1st grade classes. The kindergarten and first grade classes were housed in the trailer and separated by classic 80s wood paneling.
However, in true HBCU culture and tradition, it was not the modest buildings but who was inside them that mattered most. And the people who awaited me inside were nothing short of guardian angels.
Petite and standing barely over 5’ tall, Mrs. Leverett’s approach to being a principal was always that of a watchful mother with a firm hand who, while small in stature, seemed to exude the strength of a giant. As a student you could always feel her presence even if you could not see her. Like most mothers, she seemed to know what you were doing (good or bad) many times it seemed even before you did it. Needless to say, the “genius” day a few friends and myself decided to huddle with the latest Jet Magazine to look at the Jet Beauty of the Week and snicker did not end well for us. I am pretty sure I still have a scar somewhere on my butt from the spanking she gave us.
I have often said she designed the school in such a way that you could not help but engage in learning. Everywhere we turned there was a space that engaged us.
This was especially true the way she designed the receiving room. The receiving room was the room where parents would drop off their kids in the morning until the school day started. It also served, as our library so there was a plethora of books and posters we were surrounded by. The posters were often biographical of African American historical figures like Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, and others. It was vitally important to her that we were constantly indoctrinated with the cultural importance of our history.
She made it a point that we visited the campus so that that the seed of subconsciously projecting ourselves as African-American college students would grow. We virtually had no choice as we walked among the sea of African-American college students that looked liked us to project ourselves into that future.
Mr. Chesson’s approach to teaching in comparison to what I would experience upon leaving the cocoon of such an environment was nothing short of herculean. I would never again experience curriculum that was tailored to who I was as an African American. No matter the subject he taught he always integrated our history into it. If we were learning math we were also learning about Benjamin Banneker. If we were learning about science we were also learning about George Washington Carver. Beyond the history he allowed our curiosity to be an advantage for his teaching as opposed to an obstacle as many view it in today’s school system especially as it relates to African American children. Instead, during science lessons we would often head out of the classroom into the nature that surrounded the school.
One of my more favorite moments with Mrs. Leverett and Mr. Chesson was during recess one day. Someone had discovered blackberries growing on the fence at the back of the playground. Of course this discovery was whispered through the playground so kids were randomly “disappearing” to the back to eat blackberries. Mr. Chesson was overseeing the playground as he usually did but the fence was in a blind spot for him, but Mrs. Leverett ever vigilant apparently had looked out her office window, which was in a position where she could see the entire playground. This was something we were not aware of at the time. She came outside and Mr. Chesson went up to confer with her. She informed him of what was going on. She did not know what we were actually going back to the fence acquiring. When they found out it was blackberries they actually had to chuckle. Instead of us getting in trouble they actually arranged an overnight stay at Mrs. Yates’ house, Wee Care’s chef whose spaghetti to this day I have memories, and that weekend after getting our parents permission. We picked blackberries all week because our overnight was going to involve us making blackberry pies. Mr. Chesson and Mrs. Leverett both stayed over to chaperone and somehow we managed to have class as well. They were always vigilant in us learning no matter the “classroom”. It was a really great experience and one I still cherish to this day.
After I would leave Wee Care, because it only went up to the 1st grade, my mother enrolled me in a Catholic elementary that was the complete opposite of what Wee Care was. I went from being amongst the diversity of African faces and stories to being the diversity even though at the time the word did not carry as much buzz or meaning. For the next decade plus my learning about self within a curriculum tailored to my identity went from being something that took place at home and school to only taking place at home.
To this day I believe those formative years at Wee Care allowed me to weather and remain grounded among the many storms I would face in my new school environments where I was viewed it felt like at times as more of a threat than a child of learning. I was ahead of the learning curve because of the love, nurturing, and attention that were given my classmates and myself about who we were everyday. To this day I do not know of any of my classmates from my grade at Wee Care that did not finish college.
Wee Care is also the impetus for the most promising objective I believe I have been charged with as interim executive director of the HBCU Endowment Foundation. That vision is the HBCU Advanced Start program that will build early childhood centers and programs in the community of every HBCU based on a Pan-African curriculum.
The skylines of the redwoods are calling but I will forever be thankful to the firm roots given to me by Wee Care and HBCU products Mrs. Leverett and Mr. Chesson.
William A. Foster, IV is the President of AK, Inc., Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, organizer of HBCU Chamber of Commerce, and sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. He is a 4th generation HBCUer and father to two future HBCUers.