When Pamela C. Brown addressed the audience at Waterfront Elementary on Saturday morning, the woman who took the stage was not the reserved, aloof superintendent many in Buffalo have come to know.
The Brown who emerged was a plain-spoken, enthusiastic, almost charismatic woman eager to relate her life story “to clear up any of those misconceptions and tell you more about me.”
The day she officially launched her listening tour, which will focus on her strategic plan for the district, she said very little about that plan. Instead, she spoke at length about herself, seeking to connect to parents and others among the 75 or so in the audience on a personal level.
On her childhood on a farm in Liberty, Miss., as the youngest of eight: “We didn’t have a lot of things other people had, but we had each other. We had enough people for a team for whatever sport we wanted to play.”
On her move to the West Coast and seeing her first freeway: “I was 9 years old when my mother moved all of us to Los Angeles. It was a huge culture change. It took us three days to arrive there by bus. My aunt and uncle picked us up. I just marveled at this huge bridge. Instead of water flowing underneath, there were cars underneath.”
On the death of her teenage son: “It really caused us to think about life and what is really important. We really tried to think about what good can come of this tremendous tragedy. What I took from it is that we really have to make the most of every single moment we have on this earth.”
The superintendent also brought in some homegrown star power to help tout her listening tour. Simon T. Bailey, a 1986 Bennett High School graduate and former leader of the Disney Institute, has written seven motivational books, including “Release Your Brilliance.”
Saturday, he urged Buffalonians to tap into their brilliance – and to help their children and other young people to recognize and embrace their own brilliance. He likened that mission to finding and polishing diamonds in the rough.
“The reason students drop out of school is not because there is not enough money invested in the system. The reason they drop out is because they do not have hope for what lies beyond school,” he said. “I am here today as a hope-pusher.”
He urged teachers and others who work with children to be mindful of the words they use and the messages they convey to children.
“What would it be like for children, every single day, to be told, ‘You are awesome. You are brilliant. And you have it going on,’ ” he said. “As students come into the classroom, the first words out of every teacher’s mouth should be positive and uplifting. It sets the intention that today is going to be a brilliant day.”
Bailey heaped praise on Brown, along with some of the programs serving students in the city, including Say Yes to Education, Promise Neighborhood and the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology.
He pointed to churches in Buffalo as holding great potential as an additional resource for children, through something he called “Saturday school,” which he described as a chance for the most successful to help everyone else.
“Saturday school is about how you remain relevant in a world that’s changing,” he said. “Saturday school looks at who in the congregation has the ability to teach us how to put résumés together, how to give presentations, how to show up not on time, but before time. Because if you show up on time, you’re late. If you show up before time, you understand I’m here to make something happen.”
Bailey asked parents to do three things: write a list of “what is right” about them, to reinforce their positive traits; wake up 15 minutes earlier every day – to spend five minutes meditating, five minutes reading something inspirational, and five minutes stretching; and start a book club.
“As parents, you are leaders. And leaders are readers and readers are leaders,” he said. “Parents, we need you to show up. We need you to be involved. The teachers cannot do it by themselves. The principals cannot do it by themselves.”
Brown has scheduled two more dates for her listening tour: noon to 1:30 p.m. March 31 at the Central Library, 1 Lafayette Square; and 6 to 7:30 p.m. April 29 at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, 1324 Jefferson Ave. She said she also plans to hold a listening session, conducted entirely in Spanish, at Hispanics United, but a date has not yet been set.