At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the success of our Speak Truth to Power education program is rooted in our love and respect for teachers, which for many of us began with our own school days. This Teacher Appreciation Day, we asked members of our staff and board to share personal memories about teachers who changed their lives for the better.
Sushma Raman, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and an RFKHR board member, had a “transformative experience” this semester: a chance to study with renowned Black author, filmmaker, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reading and learning about African Americans through the narratives of enslaved individuals in the 1800s, literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and modern novels that draw upon familiar themes of double consciousness and duality, she said, “has helped me better situate modern civil rights and human rights quests in the perspectives and words of those who overcame insurmountable barriers to not only transform their own lives, but also make positive change happen for communities and the nation.”
Karen Robinson, Speak Truth to Power’s program director, describes high school as a “roller-coaster time” for her, during which she attended three different schools from grades 9 to 12, including one year in Mexico. While she thrived in sports and music, academically, she said, “I never really focused. I just kind of got by, not much expected of me so not much delivered.”
That all changed thanks to a social studies teacher at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pa., her junior year: Sharon Reardon. By making learning about history and government and everything in the social sciences so interesting, Robinson said, Reardon helped her fall in love with learning. “More importantly, she raised expectations of me,” she said. “She saw my interest, she saw I was engaged, and she asked me to do more than the minimum. She expected me to excel in the classroom just as I excelled on the court or the field.”
Reardon also offered Robinson much-needed support during a time of crisis. “My sister attended the same school, and she passed away in her senior year,” Robinson said. “One day I walked past a display and I saw a picture of my sister. I broke down, but knew there was a place I could go to cry, to feel safe and to move on—her classroom.”
Looking at her life and career, still feeling the same excitement for knowledge she learned in Reardon’s class, Robinson said she feels a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Laura Osterndorf, Speak Truth to Power’s training manager, had a history teacher at Whitnall High School near Milwaukee who changed her life. “Mr. Carter would start every day of class by playing a piece of music from the time period we were learning about, ranging from Louis Armstrong’s trumpet in the 1920s to Neil Young’s Ohio in the 1970s,” she said. Deeply passionate about politics and activism, he encouraged students to read the full newspaper and connect the historical time periods they learned about to current events. “Mr. Carter showed me that education was a tool for critical reflection and civic engagement, leading me to my career in human rights education today,” Osterndorf said.
At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she attended school from fourth to seventh grade, Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, found herself under the care of Mother Mouton, the Mother Superior. The convent and the school shared a building, and there was an elevator to the nuns’ private quarters that students were forbidden to ride.
“I used to amuse myself and my classmates by using the hand-operated crank to stop the elevator between floors, hoisting myself out and shimmying along the floor above,” Kennedy said. “This meant that, in order to start the elevator again, a nun would have to lie down on the floor and slide down into the elevator, which we thought was madly funny. Then, an understandably irate sister would take me by the scruff of the neck, toss me into Reverend Mother’s office, and slam the door behind.”
Mother Mouton always had the same reaction, Kennedy remembers: “She’d say, ‘Kerry, remember Jesus loves you no matter how you behave.’” Then she’d give Kennedy a lollipop and ask, “How’s your mom?” “It was an important early lesson, that we are all God’s children, inherently valuable and endlessly loved,” Kennedy said.
There was another rule at the convent against speaking in the halls. “I was constantly breaking that rule as well and being sent back to the Reverend Mother to be reprimanded,” Kennedy said. “It was the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, when few senators condemned the slaughter. On one such occasion, she said to me, ‘Kerry, remember that silence is golden, but sometimes, it’s just plain yellow.’ Her little talk has always stuck with me, and perhaps that’s why I’ve spent my career working with heroes who stand up to injustice and speak truth to power.”