The Outgoing Education Secretary Reunites With A Former Student

Arne Duncan, left, with Lawanda Duncan, whom he mentored as a child in Chicago. (Department of Education)
Arne Duncan, left, with Lawanda Duncan, whom he mentored as a child in Chicago. (Department of Education)

As he prepared to leave office this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan reunited with a former student as part of a StoryCorps interview project.

More than 25 years ago — when he was working at the Chicago Public Schools — Duncan took part in a mentorship program run by the "I Have A Dream" Foundation at Shakespeare Elementary School in Chicago. And Lawanda Duncan (no relation) was one of the young students he mentored.

The "I Have A Dream" Foundation provides long-term support to students in severely under-resourced public schools and in housing projects: from tutoring in early elementary school all the way through help with college tuition.

Their conversation was part of a StoryCorps project called the Great Thanksgiving Listen, which asked high school students around the country to interview an elder over the holiday using the oral history project's new mobile app.

Here are some excerpts from their conversation.

Lawanda: I came from a somewhat broken home where there was a lot of drugs and alcohol. My mom was an abusive alcoholic. I remember being put in the hospital, I had a broken bone in my leg, had cuts on my face — all from my mother.

My sister and I were in and out of schools for a large amount of time in our lives. And [my mother] could have potentially lost us as kids. And that's how we ended up in Shakespeare [Elementary] and starting the participation in the program.

Arne: What did you think when we started that 'I Have A Dream' program?

Lawanda: I was a very angry young woman and I didn't know what purpose everyone had or what they were attempting to do with me. But you and I had a very dynamic relationship, because I spent a number of days being tutored by you in math, and it became one of my favorite subjects.

Arne: The thing I was always in awe of was, while you were dealing with horrific stuff — I remember blood in the hallways, crazy, crazy stuff — somehow you always did your math, did your social studies homework, and not just did it, did it well.

How were you able to focus on that stuff while you were literally trying to stay alive?

Lawanda: One of the things the program did, it rewarded us. The better grades we got, the more rewards we got. And for us it was like hey, if we do well on this test we can go on a trip ... anything that was going to get us out of the war zone that we were in.

I wanted as much homework as I could get in order not to go home.

Every year I embraced everybody a little bit more and I accepted that they wanted to be a part of my life. They knew I had a future, I had a life, and I had a purpose, because I never thought that I had that and it took these blessings to put that in my life [chokes up] if I didn't have that support I wouldn't be here.

Arne: You graduated elementary school, went to Academy of Our Lady, did great there. Thinking about college, what was that mental process like?

Lawanda: It happened so quickly. I can remember when I finished Robert Morris [University] and I called you and I said, 'I graduate on this day,' and I remember getting that certificate and I had no family there. But I do remember that you were there. You came. You were just as proud of me as I was of myself. And you've always been proud of me, so I was like, I have to keep going.

Arne: Hopefully you know how proud we all are of you, and hopefully we've helped a little bit, but I want you to know how much you've inspired us. And it's just unbelievable to see, not what you have accomplished, but what you continue to accomplish.

The most meaningful thing for me is that you're now mentoring other kids.

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