Kamaria Powell, Mattapan

When they come to her classroom all worn down, Kamaria Powell gets it. She knows, from experience, how much weight some kids carry. But she pushed through it herself—got into college, graduated, became a teacher. Now she’s raising her younger brothers to go even further.

There’s no way Kamaria is leaving other kids in the community behind.

Here, in her own words, is the story of how Kamaria got out and gave back:

“When I was maybe about six or seven, I remember my older brother and I used to play around the house and in the backyard a lot. I used to make mud pies with leaves and sticks, and we played in the dog house—that was our secret clubhouse. And then my younger brother was born, and as I got a little bit older, maybe 10 years old, it became not so much of the play but the responsibility of taking care of my brothers, who were years younger than me.

My mom was a single mom. She had her own hardships with mental illness. She was there for us as much as she could, but my older brother and I saw the moments when the illness had taken a lot of what would typically be my mother, taken it away, so we had to really fill in those gaps.

It started off with picking up my brothers from day care. And then that went on to baby sitting, keeping them on track with homework and school, and also making sure that they had fun, too, as much as I could.

College was a big transition for me because I was really involved in my younger brothers’ lives, and I wasn’t sure: how would they be taken care of when I wasn’t present? I didn’t want to go too far because I wanted to be able to come back home whenever I needed to, if they ever needed me. It was just that anxiety of: ‘Are they going to be okay?’ ‘Am I making the right decision?’

But I just felt like if I was a stronger link in the chain of people around my brothers, that if they needed me support-wise, I could be there. It was basically: go to school now, so that you can take care of them later.

And that’s exactly what happened. I work as a fourth grade teacher at Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, and I’m taking care of them now.

At one point, their school wasn’t pushing my younger brothers the way that I felt that they needed to be pushed. Sometimes they would come home and they didn’t have any homework, and that concerned me more than anything. I had so much of an impact on their education, making sure they stayed on top of their schoolwork, because I felt like I wanted them to have a way out—and for me, education was a way out.

I always tell them: ‘You can be better. I’m not the pinnacle. You can be better.’ And they’ve shown that they can.  I have extremely high expectations for them, but I also give them the cushion of ‘I’m always going to be here, no matter what.’

I went through an interesting first year of teaching. I had some challenging kids. I remember my mentor teacher, she told me, ‘These are not your little brothers. You can’t think of them as your little brothers.’ But it was hard for me to not connect them to that because that’s why I wanted to be a teacher—I wanted all of them to be like my brothers.

There were days when fights were breaking out in the classroom, and I had to vouch for my students to not get suspended. Dealing with parents who were either a no-show at home or a no-show at school. And just trying to connect with students who by elementary school—third, fourth grade—have seen that they have no foundation, and already made sense that things don’t matter.

They call it ‘learned hopelessness.’ It was really tough to see. Because even though I had that connection with my brothers who were in the same situation that I was, growing up in a tough situation, they were always intrinsically motivated. And so having students who were in worse situations, and not having that intrinsic motivation, it was eye-opening for me. But it made me want to fight for them harder.

I just loved giving them earfuls—just talk to them, talk to them, talk to them, is what I’d do. Sometimes they’d have to stay with me for lunch, and I would just give them a bunch of stuff in their ears to let them know that I cared and I’m not mad at you, that kind of thing. And push them to think about things besides the day-to-day things that they go through—of what their future COULD be.

I was teaching this one student who was just not into math, he was just not into any of it, and he didn’t know how to multiply three digit by three digit numbers, let’s say it was. And I taught him this strategy, and when he realized that he could do that successfully, it was like night and day. He was always in the mood to do math.  And that’s why I feel like having those moments of success are important for students—not just feeling like, ‘I’m not good at anything, so I don’t care,’ or ‘This is hard, so I don’t care.’

That’s the mentality you see a lot, because struggle—it always means something bad. And when you can turn it into something good for them, and they can see that struggle can be good, it’s extremely rewarding.  They take that and they run with it. And that’s all they need.”

Listen below to Kamaria describe her decision to go to college:

UPDATE: In October 2016, Kamaria published a book, “What the F#@ck is Enlightenment?”, about her unconventional spiritual journey towards self-acceptance.

Kamaria was interviewed and photographed at Codman Square library by her father, story ambassador George Powell. The interview was then transcribed and edited for length, clarity and flow by Cara Solomon, founder of Everyday Boston, in partnership with George. Cara wrote the intro text.