The Promise: How One Woman Made Good on Her Extraordinary Pact to Send a Classroom of 1st Graders to College

The Promise: How One Woman Made Good on Her Extraordinary Pact to Send a Classroom of 1st Graders to College

by Caille Millner, Oral Lee Brown
     
 

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In the bestselling tradition of The Pact and The Freedom Writers Diary—the inspiring story of one woman’s extraordinary promise and steely determination to make a difference in the world.

One morning in 1987 Oral Lee Brown walked into a corner store in East Oakland, California, to buy snacks for work. A little girl asked her

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Overview

In the bestselling tradition of The Pact and The Freedom Writers Diary—the inspiring story of one woman’s extraordinary promise and steely determination to make a difference in the world.

One morning in 1987 Oral Lee Brown walked into a corner store in East Oakland, California, to buy snacks for work. A little girl asked her for a quarter, and Brown assumed that she wanted to buy candy, but surprisingly she bought bread and bologna—staples for her family.

Later that day Brown couldn’t get the little girl out of her mind. Why wasn’t she in school? Why was she out begging for money to buy food for her family? After several weeks of not being able to sleep, Brown went to look for the girl at the local elementary school and soon found herself in a first-grade classroom. She didn’t find the little girl, but before she left she found herself promising the kids that if they finished high school, she would pay for their college education.

At the time, Oral Lee Brown made only $45,000 a year.

But years later, after annually saving and investing $10,000 of her own money and establishing the Oral Lee Brown Foundation, this remarkable woman made good on her promise: after nineteen of the original twenty-three students graduated from high school, she sent them all to college. And in May of 2003, LaTosha Hunter was the first of Brown’s “babies,” as well as the first person in her family, to graduate from college.

This marvelous and inspiring book is the amazing story of one woman's unending desire to make a difference. And if once was not enough, in 2001 Brown made the same promise to three new classrooms of first-, fifth-, and ninth-graders. Brown and her foundation are now committed to adopting a new crop of kids to send to college every four years.

Brown’s pledge to the students was not without great personal and public sacrifice. Her promise turned her life upside-down—it strained her relationships, and at times required her to work several different jobs. Brown also developed a strong emotional attachment to the children—for many of these students Brown was the one consistent adult in their lives.

In a world short on heroes, altruism, and dedication, THE PROMISE shows that it is still possible to change lives for the better. This book will encourage, uplift, and inspire every reader.

A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to the Oral Lee Brown Foundation. To learn more about the Oral Lee Brown Foundation please visit www.oralleebrownfoundation.com.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In 1987, Brown went to an elementary school to find a little girl she wanted to help and ended up promising an entire first-grade class that she would pay their college tuition. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A hard-won, practical tale of adopting a class of students and guaranteeing them a college education if they want it. And Brown works hard to convince them that, for most, college is the only road to advancement. In 1987, in her ratty neighborhood of East Oakland, California, Brown was asked by a child, "Lady, can I have a quarter?" But Brown was nobody's fool, not even a six-year-old's, so, since she was shopping anyway, she told the girl to go get what she wanted-which turned out to be staple items, not candy or soda. As a result, Brown, a real-estate saleswoman with a salary of $45,000, picked up the tab and was haunted by the encounter. She unsuccessfully tried to locate the girl at a local elementary school, but she did find a class of 23 first-graders who grabbed her heart. Damning the consequences, she told the school principal that she would pay for each of the students to attend college if they ended up wanting that. This isn't just a heartwarming story, but it's about Brown's conviction that without a college diploma you're rowing upstream, as she says, and that the hard road to college is going to make thinking people out of her charges. It's also a story about dedication. From the start, Brown was there, on the phone, in the classroom, in living rooms, addressing all kinds of doubt and crisis, tendering absolutes when needed-stay away from drugs, period-along with more nuanced advice about self-respect and social awareness. Brown is plainspoken, giving her views on everything from sternness to listening, the impact of special people in your life, to practical matters of setting up trust accounts and saving for your own child's higher education, even when your income is scant.Brown couldn't sleep until she knew why that little girl wanted a quarter. Few among us better deserve a good night's rest.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385511476
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/05/2005
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

1

The Education of Oral Lee Brown

Even though I acted as a surrogate parent to twenty-three kids, I didn't always understand what they were going through growing up. I couldn't compare my childhood to theirs at all. Even though I'm just in my early sixties, and was only in my forties when I made my promise, the world of my childhood has disappeared. Well, in most ways, I hope!

I was born in Mississippi in the early 1940s, in a small town just outside Batesville. At the time Batesville, which is on the Tallahatchie River about fifty miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, had a population of about 15,000 people. The most interesting thing about Batesville when I was growing up was the fact that it was on the main train line that wound through the country, so we got to see all kinds of people coming and going when we were children. We also got to dream of leaving on that train, and believe you me, did I dream of leaving Mississippi! Even as a child I knew that there had to be a better life for me somewhere else, somewhere with racial integration and economic opportunity.

I am the ninth of twelve children born to Walter and Nezzie Bivins. My parents are old-fashioned farming folk: we grew cotton and corn, and we were very proud of the fact that we were one of the only black families in Batesville who owned our own land. Almost every other black family worked as sharecroppers, which meant that they did all the hard work on another man's land and then had to give most of the profit right back to the owner. That's why black people in the South stayed poor.

My father worked as a sharecropper for years and years before he saved up enough money to buy that land, and then we cleared and tilled it ourselves. When I say "we," I mean all of us—even at the age of eight years old I was picking fifty pounds of cotton a day, and then going back in the house to cook for twelve people. This was the time in my life when I learned a lot of the discipline—not to mention the penny-pinching—that it took to put an entire class of children through college.

You see, when you're picking cotton, you're doing it with the understanding that there's not a lot of money to be made in it. In fact, you're breaking your back for almost nothing. I'll give you an example: my family was so disciplined about working our own sixty acres that some years, we finished our crop in time to work on another farm that hadn't finished all the picking. We were paid every day for the amount of cotton that we picked, and so I can tell you exactly how much the fifty pounds of cotton that I picked every day at the age of eight years old was worth: two dollars. I remembered that later on when I was struggling to save enough money to put my babies through college: Oral Lee, I said to myself, you used to work for two dollars a day. You can get through this. And I always did.

It was a hard life in Mississippi. It was hard not just economically but socially, too. Thanks to segregation, black people had to live in a part of town called the Vance Bottom, down by the river, while white people lived up the hill in Batesville proper. Every few years the river flooded and destroyed many homes, and do you think any of those white people ventured down the hill to help out? That's right—they didn't. But they still expected black people to move off of the sidewalk when a white person passed by, and to keep their mouths shut after a black person was lynched by a white mob. That happened fairly often, too. Mississippi was a violent place to be a child.

In many ways, I'm one of the lucky ones. I left home when I was twelve years old. What happened was that one of my older sisters, Willie Bea, married a young man named Paul and followed him to Newburgh, New York. They had heard there were good jobs up North, and they wanted to escape segregation. They also started having children nearly every year of their marriage, including two sets of twins! They eventually had eight children in all. That would have been far too many babies for Willie Bea to manage by herself, so I lobbied my mother to be the one who got to leave Mississippi and help out.

After Mississippi, New York was amazing. When I arrived there at the age of twelve, everything about it felt completely foreign and new. It was the first time I had ever seen snow. It was the first time I'd ever seen a city! It was also the first time I had attended desegregated schools, and the first time I'd seen black people on an equal footing with white people. Of course there was still subtle segregation, but for the most part, everyone was just trying to make money in New York. I felt my heart bursting with pride when I saw black people who had "made it"—black people who had nice homes and nice cars just like the rich white people.

Now, when I say that I was one of the lucky ones, I mean I was lucky because I got out of Mississippi. In a different way, though, I wasn't lucky at all: I had to leave my mother, who I loved more than life itself. There's no way to describe how much I missed her during those years in New York, and how much I continued to miss her when I was an adult. In fact, after I was an adult, I used to tell my mother in the same breath that while I was so happy she had let me go to New York—where I didn't have to live under segregation—I also felt that she shouldn't have sent me away. I believe both of those things with all of my heart, even though they contradict each other. And my mother used to laugh at my logic whenever I said that, but she understood.

"Oral Lee," she told me, "there's no way I could've pleased you. What would you have liked me to do?"

"I'd have liked you to have packed up and gotten on that train with me," I told her. "All of us should have moved to New York."

She just laughed and laughed. The truth is that my mother probably wouldn't have liked New York. She's a Southerner in every way. Much later on, when all of her children were living in California, she moved to California too. Even though we all loved it, she never really got used to living there. As hard as her life was there, Mississippi was her home. I appreciate that—but I still wish that I could've put her in my suitcase when I moved to New York.

Even though I only lived in Mississippi for twelve years, I had two crucial experiences there that shaped my life. The first thing that happened was that I met a young woman who taught me the importance of education.

I've noticed that a lot of people who have gone on to do work in education had a special teacher during their childhood. If you read the autobiographies of educators like Helen Keller or Booker T. Washington, you'll notice that, even though they started their lives with huge disadvantages, there was someone in their childhood who mentored them and encouraged them; someone who believed in them. For me, that person was Miss Grace.

Miss Grace was not from Batesville. I believe she was from a big town in the South, maybe Memphis. She lived in the town of Batesville, in a house that was set up especially for young female teachers from out of town. There were a few teachers who came from hotshot cities to teach us ragged kids in Batesville; I'm sure there were white women who did this for the white schools too. A number of young teachers lived in Miss Grace's house, staying in their own apartments and boarding together. Young women didn't stay on their own then like they do now. And Miss Grace was young—she must have been about twenty-two years old, fresh out of college.

She was also beautiful. I'm not just saying that because she was the kindest lady you'd ever meet in your life! She was truly a pretty woman, and all the men in town used to stare at her. But she was one of those people who didn't even notice that kind of attention, because even though she was pretty she wasn't a snob. She was just everything that you could ever want to be: kind, beautiful, charming, gracious, sweet, intelligent, concerned. My brother Homer also had her as a teacher and even after we were grown we used to talk about how much we loved her. She was the sort of person who everyone loved.

Now, I always said she liked me because I was the ugliest kid in the class. The other kids used to say, "Why does Miss Grace like that ugly girl?" But it didn't bother me. First of all, I was just happy to be in school in the first place. See, unlike the way things are for kids today, when I was growing up kids were either in school or they were working in the fields. So we were all thrilled to be in that schoolhouse. There was never any question of "cutting class" like kids do today. If a kid was absent from school, it was because his parents needed him to be at work in the fields. That happened to all of us around harvesting time, and we were always sorry to leave our lessons.

I was doubly sorry to leave Miss Grace. For the first time, in addition to having someone at home who loved me—that's my mother, I was always special to my mother—I now had someone out in the world who loved me too. I often thought about how I came to play Miss Grace's role in the lives of my students. And when I got frustrated or upset with my students, I thought of Miss Grace, and that gave me peace.

For Miss Grace and I had a special relationship. She even asked me if I would like to spend the night with her every now and then. I must have been around ten years old then. Of course I said yes, and whenever she wanted to have me over, she would write a note for me to take home to my mother. And the next day when I went to school, I took a little brown paper bag with an extra set of clothes in it, so that I could stay over with Miss Grace.

Those were some of the best evenings of my life. After school was out, Miss Grace and I would walk back to her little rooms in the boardinghouse. It was only a few blocks from the school, not the six miles I had to walk from my house, and we would just talk and laugh all the way. She was always carrying a huge stack of books, and she gave me a stack of papers to carry. We would walk down the streets just laughing, and all the men would stop to look at her. I'm sure they were wondering, "Now what is that beautiful lady doing with that ugly child?" But I didn't care, and Miss Grace probably didn't even notice.

Whatever I told her I wanted for supper, I would get it. We cooked the food together, and then after supper I would help her grade the papers from that day's class. If I didn't know the answers myself, she never scolded me for grading wrong. She would just say little things like, "Well, think about it, Oral, count it out to yourself. Is that really the answer you want to say is right?"

And then, when it was time for bed, I got my own bed in my own room. I never had anything like that at home! So you can understand how I just felt like the most special person on earth around Miss Grace. Those nights always flew by. I was always sad to wake up in the morning.

When I did go back home, I would be on a high from everything Miss Grace had done and said. She was all I could talk about. It must have offended my mother in some sense, to see her child—this child who loved her more than anything—come in and go on and on about this other woman. It's a sign of my mother's respect for teachers that she never said anything about it.

I have put Miss Grace up there with my mother in terms of what she meant to me as a child growing up in the South. She was a true role model, and not just because she was so gracious and sweet. She taught me more than any other teacher I've had. I don't even remember the names of my other schoolteachers, but I've been trying to look up Miss Grace for years. I heard she married a mean man who beat her, and I hope that's not the case. If so, it speaks to his weakness rather than hers.

Miss Grace showed me that education can take you places, even if you're a woman. There were two facts about her that were fascinating to me—she came from somewhere else, and she had gone to college. The fact that she had left her hometown meant that maybe I could get out of my hometown, too.

And the fact that she had been to college meant that she could become a teacher. That was the highest ambition a mother could have for her daughter back then, to become a teacher or a nurse. I believe my mother wanted me to be a teacher, and surely the respect she showed for Miss Grace was an incentive to me. But as powerful as that incentive was, I believe that it was those two facts together that really struck me. She had left her hometown and she had gotten her education. I started thinking even then about whether those two facts were correlated. Could getting an education help me leave home? What else could it do? I truly believe that having Miss Grace as a teacher shaped my life. She's a big part of the reason why I started down the path I've followed to this day.

The second thing that started me down the path I've followed to this day is what happened to my four eldest brothers on a Saturday night in 1955. I must have been about nine years old.

My four eldest brothers are all just one year apart in age. My mother had her first four kids one right after the other—in 1927, '28, '29, and '30. Since they were all boys, and so close in age, they grew up together as close as any siblings can be. Every chore they did, they did together. Every bit of cotton they picked, they picked standing side by side in the rows. And everywhere they went, they went together. So of course when they went out on this particular Saturday night, they went to the local nightclub, or "juke," together. It's very important to know that my brothers went to the juke on Saturday nights, but they went to the juke because there was nowhere else for black people to go. They weren't interested in some of the nasty business that happened in those jukes, and they certainly weren't interested in drinking. My daddy didn't allow that.

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Meet the Author

ORAL LEE BROWN was selected as one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” in 2002, and appeared on the Today show as part of its “People Who Make a Difference” series. She has also been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and Courage, hosted by Danny Glover. She has received numerous awards, including the California State Lottery Hero in Education Award, the “Ten Most Influential People Award,” given by San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, and the Madame C.J. Walker Award. She lives in Oakland, California. CAILLE MILLNER was listed as one of Columbia Journalism Review's "Ten Most Promising Young Magazine Writers." She is currently a reporter and editorial writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

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