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'Awesome' times three: A kid meets a local hero

For The Baltimore Sun

As parents of black children, we are constantly looking for ways to make sure our three littles know about the people throughout history – the heroes and sheroes – who look like they do.

Although all our nation’s great men and women are worthy of study and will be celebrated in our home, it’s important to us that we specifically point out and uplift those whose backgrounds and brown skin most resemble theirs. We do that because we know that representation matters.

Take the time that our now-5-year-old was in pre-kindergarten and learned, during Black History Month, that Mae Jemison was a doctor, an astronaut and an engineer. She came home that day exclaiming, “And I want to be just like her!”

I was moved then, and told her teachers so. My tiny daughter saw a woman, a black woman, and recognized unlimited potential in herself. What a beautiful and important thing.

But Mae Jemison, amazing as she is, is so vaunted as to be almost mythical. How much better is it to meet or know real people, people you can touch and see in the flesh, in whom they might find reasons to relate?

One writer, Laura Thomas, writing for the education-related blog Edutopia, recently said it this way:

“Our children's early experiences -- including the hours spent consuming media -- shape what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live, or come from where they came from. Simply put, kids determine what they can be based on the examples around them.”

This brings me to my not-so-humblebrag of the week! Last week, we got to introduce our babies to an actual, real live hero -- the legendary Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County!

Hrabowski, if you don’t know, has been the head of the university for nearly 25 years, and in his tenure has elevated the tiny institution from relative obscurity to national prominence.

U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges guide just ranked UMBC in the top five on its “Most Innovative Schools” list, along with such stalwarts as Stanford and MIT, and called the school “among the best in teaching and setting new standards of student success.”

As a former education reporter (for this newspaper) I can tell you that Hrabowski is a total rock star in the higher education and STEM worlds. So when he invited my whole family to come meet with him in his 10th-floor office on campus, I swooned the way I would have if Idris Elba had asked me out for a spot of tea (in his British accent, of course).

He wanted to talk to us because he’d heard through a mutual friend that my son had attempted to build a fort in our backyard and documented his attempts in a makeshift scientific journal, his mathematically impossible measurements and sweet “failures” finally giving way to self-encouragement:

“I won’t get angry or upset because I am a siencetist,” he wrote. “And if that doesn’t work I won’t give up because scincetist don’t give up and I’m a sciensetist and I will keep trying.”

Maybe it was his tenacity, or perhaps Hrabowski was most impressed with my son’s ability to misspell “scientist” three different ways. But whatever it was, he invited us all in to meet and talk about math, science, education and being focused on excellence.

Hrabowski is a man who travels at least three times a week, and sleeps no more than four hours a night. He meditates in the morning and takes two hours of French each day. And still, he found time to spend a comfortable hour and a half encouraging my children – and us.

The kids left his office impressed and motivated, repeating the mantra he shared with them: “Focus, focus, focus.”

Later, my son wrote down how he felt about meeting this giant of a man. He used the word “awesome” three times.

Awesome to the third power. That’s a good way to describe this experience, this hero in our own backyard. And even if none of my three children turn out to be sciensetists – we are so very grateful to have met him.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works as vice president at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 7-year-old sons, a 5-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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