It was May 2021, technically still springtime, but in a year when nothing was as it was supposed to be, the temperature was a sweltering 95 degrees. Reba Stanley, a second grade teacher at Achievement First’s Hartford Elementary Academy, was walking “my kiddos,” as she calls her students, to art class, when she noticed one girl in a tank top hanging back. “Miss Stanley,” she asked, “Do I look okay?”
“You look beautiful!” the teacher exclaimed.
“I don’t feel beautiful,” came the tearful reply. A cousin had told the girl she was fat.
At 27, Stanley has radar for anything that undermines a child’s confidence; she learned from experience that life often does this, in ways obvious and unseen, to black and brown kiddos, especially in high poverty communities.
Stanley took the girl by the hand and invited her on a walk around the building. “I purposely stopped at places and people I knew who love her,” Stanley recalled. “And they all said things like, ‘Theresa, you’re beautiful! We love your personality! We love your style!’” Theresa was elated.
"I can’t tell you that what people say won’t hurt sometimes,” Stanley told her. But what matters is what you feel about yourself. And the way you feel right now, that’s what will carry you through the rest of your life."
The child gave her teacher a long, heartfelt hug. “I’ll never forget this,” she said, then walked confidently into art class.
The moment captured for Stanley why she teaches. “It goes beyond the classroom,” she said, wiping a tear, even as she flashed a dazzling smile.
You have the responsibility to shape their character, who they are as a person. It’s not just what did you learn, but how do you treat other human beings? What did you learn about yourself?
Stanley, who is Black, grew up in a comfortably middle class section of Middletown, removed from the low-income neighborhoods where most Blacks lived. She took some advanced classes at Middletown High School and was often the only Black student—at most one of two—in those advanced classes. She lived by the “twice-as-good rule:” Black kids had to work twice as hard as whites to be deemed half as good.
Stanley had to work even harder. She had dyslexia, a secret she kept from everyone except her parents. Then came Mr. Reynolds, who taught a class for aspiring entrepreneurs. He gave pop quizzes by calling out a question, to which students wrote an answer. Unable to process the oral information, Stanley failed the first two quizzes. On the third, she broke down crying. Mr. Reynolds took her aside and asked what was wrong. Moved by his concern, she told him the truth, and to her amazement, he had an easy fix: From then on, he would slip her a typed copy of his questions. She went on to ace all of them. Even a decade later, on that sweltering day in Hartford, his example inspired her response to a young girl feeling bad about her body.
“If he could make me feel like a million bucks,” Stanley said, “this is how I want to make black and brown children feel for the rest of their lives.”
It was as a student at Spelman College, the historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, that Stanley discovered how profoundly race and racism had shaped her. In high school, she had barely flinched when white kids blurted out, “Oh, Reba, you have to put grease in your hair,” or peppered her with questions about Black colloquialisms.
“I didn’t think much of it unless it was blatant racism, like someone being called the N word,” she said. “That’s what I would see as aggressive and wrong. But any of those micro-aggressions that typically you have to be taught about, I didn’t recognize them.”
She emerged from Spelman committed to teach in high-poverty, inner cities – first Newark, NJ, now Hartford – where racism, in her view, has harmed children unconscionably. “People say to me, `That’s the ‘hood! Oh my God!’” Stanley said. “They’re afraid to go there. But they’re not thinking about the children who live there.”
Stanley thinks of them all the time. She stays up late writing raps about math and reading principles, complete with hand-motions and TikTok-worthy dance moves. When they’re restless, she calls a wiggle break, or asks them to tell a funny story. She assures them it’s okay to make mistakes, that even Stanley makes them—and learns from them! With every move, she is modeling a success story for them, one in which they can be unapologetically themselves.
“I want them to say, `I had a teacher who looked like me and cared about me,’” she said. “There was one day when five kids said, `I want to be like you. I want to be a teacher. I want to go to college. I want to go to Spelman.’ Even the boys—the boys want to go to Spelman! It’s a game changer.”