As an adolescent, she earned the nickname of “professional student” for always carrying around half a dozen books in her backpack—most of which came from her home library. Crawford’s mother spent much of her time and limited money building a large library, with books from authors such as Marcus Garvey and James Baldwin. “Everything I learned about black history and culture before college came from home,” said Crawford, who spent most of her school years in predominantly white Catholic schools. “In our home, the most common directive you heard from my mother was, ‘Go read a book.’”
That bookishness led to success at school, but didn’t inoculate her from jeering classmates. In her elementary school, Crawford was one of just three black students in the building. These were some of the toughest years of Crawford’s childhood, filled with racist slurs and abusive comments from classmates about her big, thick-rimmed glasses. In third grade, Crawford’s teacher told her that she wasn’t smart enough to be in her school and should consider finding another one.
By sixth grade, Crawford was plotting her first act of protest. “I don’t like how you are treating me,” she told a teacher. “I’m not coming back.” Soon after, Crawford’s mother transferred her to another Catholic school with more black students.
In the last year of middle school, Crawford transferred to the majority-black neighborhood school. There, for the first time, Crawford experienced both high academic expectations and a sense of belonging as a student. At E. Washington Rhodes Middle School, Crawford had her first experience with veteran black teachers in the classroom. “These women put on their best clothes to school every day: stilettos, dresses, beautiful coats,” she told me. “They loved their jobs. They loved the kids. And they pushed you to do your best work every day in a disciplined, no-nonsense way.”
Around this time, Crawford decided that she wanted to become a teacher, so that she could help create the kind of classrooms that allowed her and her black classmates to thrive in school. She noticed that veteran black teachers—and many of their white colleagues who learned from them—ran rigorous, well-structured classrooms, but also got to know their students’ personal lives and intellectual interests. They knew when a student needed a push, cheering up, or help calming down. They knew how to organize adults in the school and enlist help from a student’s community to ensconce each child in a supportive web of high expectations and warm relationships. “My college counselor reminded me of my grandmother,” Crawford said. “These women were your mama, auntie, disciplinarian, coach, and your biggest cheerleader.”
In 1997, after becoming the first in her family to graduate from college, Crawford returned to E. Washington Rhodes Middle School as an English teacher. By then the school had fewer black teachers, but most were still veterans who coached younger teachers and established a school climate of high expectations and relationships that resembled familial bonds. Crawford’s alma mater still had arts and music programs, many student clubs, a library, a gym, and a robust maintenance staff to keep the building in pristine shape.