Brene Brown states it best, “True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” I wish you, Timothy, my younger self, would have known this. While it took having a son, moving 1,137 miles (from Houston to Madison), finding love in a new city, and learning to live my most authentic life, we have arrived at true belonging.
True belonging must come from healing. We must be willing to do the work as we move through life. So now, at the age of 44, I am glad that I have been able to heal the seven-year-old who overcame sexual abuse, the 13-year-old who experienced homelessness in a new state with his family, and the 17- to 31-year-old that allowed the lack of acceptance of self to dictate how he moved in the world; including being told that you did not deserve to exist in certain spaces. While it has taken us some time to get here, the most valuable lesson, I hope you know, is that “Other people’s perceptions of you ain’t none of your business.” (Lisa Nichols)
A Mother’s Love
Growing up, I know it sounds like you didn’t have much. However, the one thing you did have was the most valuable gift. A gift that I wish we had the opportunity to love in this new phase of acceptance in our life. That was the gift of a loving mother. As you move throughout life, you will have the experience of meeting many people; however, your mother was your first true love. Through it all, she gave you two things that no man or woman can take away from you: love of reading and education. After all, she taught you at a very young age how to use public transit so that you could get to class and always have the best education.
To this day, I question why she pushed us so hard; however, while we never had a conversation about who I was becoming, a mother’s love really doesn’t need words. I recognize now, as a father, that she was preparing me for a world that I didn’t even know existed. She taught us many lessons in life, and even in death, she continues to teach us. The memories she has left have allowed us to learn to forgive always and, most importantly, to learn unconditionally. As an adult, these are lessons I have learned to tap into as I continue to grow, heal, and lead.
Growing up as an avid reader, we learned to take on many characteristics of those that we believe were our superheroes. While our superheroes were not the same as some of our friends growing up, we focused more on the lessons we learned from our reading. So growing up at an early age, we learned from a poem that Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff (Poem by Eloise Greenfield “Harriet Tubman”) or the lesson we learned from Thurgood Marshall, “A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.”
We need more superheroes. Superheroes are individuals that use their superpowers to serve a greater purpose, and most of them place the well-being of others above themselves. To be a superhero, certain characteristics are needed. However, the one characteristic I wish I had learned earlier is confidence. This life has taught me that “confidence is not arrogance; instead, it is the ability to see yourself as a flawed individual and still hold yourself in high regard.” (Esther Perel)
When I learned this, life opened up for me, and now allows me to live this life as authentically as possible. It has truly made me a better human, a better leader, a stronger father to the most courageous 11-year-old on this earth, a stronger husband, and a better friend.
Growing up, I never thought I would be in this space where I exist. As a young child, I recall saying I would never get married and never have children. I was positioning myself as the next Thurgood Marshall. All the things I said I would never do became my reality.
A Good Place
Being in Madison over the last five years has brought us much healing. If I am honest, I moved to Madison running from this space in my life where I thought it was my responsibility to be everything to everyone. However, the one person I forgot to show up for the most was myself. I think that is one of the most important lessons that I have learned from living in this space; you actually don’t have to be everything for everyone; instead, you have to be good to everyone, and there is a huge difference.
Madison has allowed me to tap into things about myself that I never knew I could do, such as being outside and enjoying the outdoors—we are learning to love the act of play. I have been fortunate enough to find a community of people that accepts me for who I am, both personally and professionally.
Five years ago, I was able to make this transition from Houston based on my involvement with Teach For America. Teach For America allowed me to discover just how much I needed to be an educator. As the current Associate Superintendent of Technology for Madison Metropolitan School District, this career opportunity feels different. Honestly, I think it is because I am different. For the first time in my career, I show up as the most authentic person I know how to be, including being a Black, gay man.
In my current role, yes, I strive to ensure that all our students have equitable access to technology and libraries that reflect who they are and allow them to see themselves outside their community. However, it is my personal belief that when I show up, I am an example to a little Black boy struggling as I did with who he is. I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to do that and that I have a superintendent that encourages me to be me.
Life has taught me to dream big, so I continue to do that. I hope that one day, my desire to have a boarding school for African-American and Hispanic males becomes a reality, and maybe just maybe, I will one day become the superintendent of an urban school district and, eventually, the Secretary of Education for the United States.
Dr. TJ McCray is the Associate Superintendent of Technology for the Madison Metropolitan School District and GSAFE’s 2022 Educator of the Year.