'They're going to tell you to eff off. Don't matter. The next day, they get to start over. Because they're still kids and they're learning'
Educator Ewell Bryant Jr. on building community in the classroom and a generation that doesn't value itself.
Ewell Bryant Jr., an educator and mentor at Rochester Public Schools, had a remarkably twisty road through his teens and 20s.
“There’s a lot of ins and outs in that path of mine,” he said.
Here, Bryant discusses discovering his aptitude for education, founding a small business to escape the generational wealth gap, and youth who don’t value themselves.
Can you tell me about your path to Rochester Public Schools?
Well! I like to tell people this part of the story, since it was such a big deal to me. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t have a plan. My older sister went to college, but my mom stopped going to school when she was 12, and my dad was an Army vet, so we didn’t have that goal, to go to college.
One day, one of my best friends — 6’7”, 300 pounds — was scheduled to come out here to RCTC to play football. I asked him, “Can I catch a ride?” His mom said, “Yeah, you can come with us,” so I just — I had $40 and a bookbag.
I walked up to the college — I had always wanted to play college basketball — and someone helped me get into the school. That’s where my life got started.
My first year, I was still struggling with a place to live, stuff like that, so I ended up living with one of my college professors for the summer, until I got on my feet. My first year, I failed out of everything … after that, I said, “You know what, I’m going to do it.” I went to school at RCTC for two years, maybe three. … There was another school in La Crosse called Western Tech, I transferred there. I majored in marketing, and after I got done there, they had an exchange program with Viterbo University.
I met a guy named Tom Thibodeau — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him — but he really put me on this leadership path. Every day, he’d just tell me, “You’re a great leader,” blah-dee blah-dee, he filled my head with these things. At this time, I started working with the Boys & Girls Club, and I’d grown up in the Boys & Girls Club. One of the reasons I even went to college was because they gave me some scholarship money.
I ended up majoring in business and marketing. I was working the whole time, at the Boys & Girls Club; I was a director of parent education at the family resource center in La Crosse. I got opportunities to start up a teen center in Holmen, Wis., which was a straight rural, white community, so that was kind of different for me. I just kept on this Boys & Girls Club path, but I never quite knew what I wanted to do. I was just doing, because that was what I’d been taught to do.
I ended up coming here. … I applied for a summer job at the Boys & Girls Club, and they offered me unit director. So I started doing that, that was what I really wanted to do, always. … I worked there for four years, five years. Then at one point, my daughter, who was turning 1 — I felt like I didn’t know her. With nonprofit work, you never stop. I was up at 7, I didn’t get home until 7. So I decided I was going to go back to school, get my teacher’s license. I started here at Century High School.
You mentioned earlier that you were just doing things, without really knowing what you wanted to do. When did that change?
If I’m honest with you, I didn’t know what I wanted to be until I actually became a teacher. I always wanted to work with youths, that’s been (true) my entire life. I got my first job at 16 — actually, I got my first job at a liquor store, but my second job was 16, at the Boys & Girls Club. And that’s all I’ve done. Every single job had something to do with kids and families.
I knew that was my path, but the problem you always come into is that you just don’t make money. At some point, I decided I valued this more. I could probably go and get another job, I have the credentials. But the value of my time off in the summer, the value of being with my kids all day — that’s more important to me. I’m not super old, but I value that time more than anything; it’s the most important thing in my life.
You’re also the CEO of Three Little Birds.
Just a couple of years ago, I had a couple friends in Cleveland who got into trucking, and they kept telling me about it (again and again). So I decided I would try it. In 2019, we started Three Little Birds Trucking, named after my kids. So I got the first truck, and that, even, was an adventure. No one would give me a loan.
Got good credit, been pretty financial savvy with things … I put my name in one of those things on Google — they know what you’re looking for, you know, and all of a sudden, one came up. “Are you looking for a loan?” So I put my name in, and about two hours later, I get a call on the phone. … He’s like, “This is Lance Resner from Minnwest Bank.”
Lance was someone I met my first year of college. So he’s like, “Yeah, I’m the commercial bank president over here — let’s sit down and talk.” … So we got the first truck, and now we’ve got three.
Why were you interested in trucking, specifically? It seems very different from your day job.
People always talk about the racial, generational wealth gap, and all I know is this — when my mom passed away a couple of years ago, I inherited debt. That was it. I don’t want my kids to do that. I want to be able to say, “Hey guys, I did something for you.” … It’s not like I’m going into trucking because I love it. I’m not like, “This is what I want to do with my life.” But it’s something where I can say, “You know what, I did this, I’m getting some other people some jobs …”
For me, it was more income that’s going to add value to someone else’s life. For my drivers, I pay them more than other people pay them. I feel like everyone should have a living wage. More and more, the last couple of years … that racial stuff has come more to the forefront. It’s always been there. … Even in my classroom, we talk about this stuff every day. We talk about our subject, but it’s important that the kids know where we are and how we got there. So we can start breaking the chains. I’m not talking about, like, slavery.
If the kids are learning this at 14, why it’s important to know someone else, and the value of people that are different from you, that’s going to go (further) than me arguing with some 55-year-old man on Facebook. … A lot of my kids have never had a Black teacher. A hundred (and) eighty kids, and maybe six of them have had a Black teacher in their classroom. So how do you break those stereotypes? You do this.
What have you learned from those students in return?
They don’t understand their value. Our kids don’t think they’re worth anything. And so they don’t feel important.
Why is that?
Technology, having real relationships with people. And — I don’t know when this shift happened, it’s even before my time, when I was a kid. But kids get to a certain age, and we just let them go. You get to sixth grade, and it’s like, “Oh, you’re old enough to get home by yourself, you’re old enough to do this by yourself.” So they’re not getting the adult relationships they need. They’re learning from each other, instead of from adults.
These last two years, it’s been horrible. Kids are just so used to being on their phones. And I know, this is the trend of the conversation right now. But it’s true. I was just talking to a buddy the other day, saying how I’m walking down the hall, and these kids just look sad. They do! They don’t know what to do, how to say “Hi,” they just put their head down because they’re uncomfortable. They don’t know how to communicate anymore because everything is on a phone. There’s no feeling or emotion, because no one can see your face.
How do you combat that as an educator?
You just — everything in collaboration. I’ll go through my regular classroom curriculum, but I spend one day every week, like, “This is our family table. This is our circle of trust, and when we talk here, everyone has a voice, no one is criticized for what they’re saying.” This is ongoing. Our first week of school, as teachers, we say, “Let’s get to know everyone.” We give them a little sheet of paper. But that’s got to be continual, every day, all year.
When I hire my guys, I say, “We are a family-oriented business — take care of the things I need you to take care of, and I’ll take care of you.” The language of community-building … I think about all the things in my life, and a lot of them happened because of the relationships I built. Getting the call from Lance Resner at the bank … when I got my first full-time job at Century … The kids gotta understand that.
Do you have any advice for people working with youth in this day and age?
Be real. Like, be real, be yourself, be who you are. I think a lot of us struggle with trying to fit into this (idea) of perfection. … When you’re with kids, be your authentic self. Then don’t give up. Because kids — even if you’re your authentic self, they’re going to still move on. They don’t want to talk to us. You just do it, then you do it again, then you do it again until you wear them down. … They’re going to tell you to eff off. Don’t matter. The next day, they get to start over. Because they're still kids, and they’re learning.