Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby

"You Are Going to Teach God's Children"

Bill Cosby challenges graduates in May of 1998 to fight for their schools and become the instructors that no students want. Because, he says, those are the greatest teachers you can have.

"How many of you will stand up to the Superintendent?" was Bill Cosby's commencement challenge. Wearing a Teachers College baseball cap with a golden tassel, the 60-year-old comedian spoke before 1,297 students receiving master's degrees from Columbia University's Teachers College--the New York school where his son, Ennis, was a doctoral student when he was gunned down last year while changing a flat tire in Los Angeles. Cosby has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. Excerpts from his 30-minute speech:

      I think that had God created a teacher first, Adam and Eve would have been better off. All right, here's the bad news. Had Adam and Eve behaved, we wouldn't be here, because they wouldn't have been thrown out and then they wouldn't have known something else. . . .

      There was a teacher, her name was and still is Mary B. Forchick. Mary B. Forchick first of all graduated from Girls High School in Philadelphia at age 13. She then went to the University of Pennsylvania, graduated magna summa--everything--at age 16, having to take in those days Greek and Latin in the same semester. Her father and mother aimed her toward medical school. She decided she wasn't going to do that. At age 16 she wanted to teach. She zeroed in on the lower economic neighborhood that I lived in, I'm sorry to say, because at that time, she was the worst teacher, the worst nightmare--and you all have had teachers like that. The ones that you hear about that you don't want to even let them know your name. And to this day you know that that was the greatest teacher you had.

      The first teachers I ever had [were] William and Anna Cosby. They read to me. They taught me how to read. They taught me how to write. I could not spell, but I knew how to write. I could count change. And at age 4--age 4--I knew math. I knew how to add, subtract, divide, only one decimal point 'cause we lived in the lower economic area. We were not poor. We were broke.

      Do you hear what I'm telling you? No one walks around this world--I would say at least 97%, 85%, whatever--without having met the teacher, those people who said things to us and it changed us.

      I was in first grade, I knew all of the first-grade work because of what William and Anna had taught me. I'm telling you this as a grown-up now. But think of this child. The first-grade teacher gave me work and I did it and I finished it and she marked it A.

      And I said, "Can I go play now?" She said, "No, you have to stay."

      Well, the others are still working. Can I play until they [finish]? She said, "No." And so then she gave me more work, and this continued . . . until after a month, this teacher said to me, "I don't have anything else to give you."

      So I said, "Well, can I have some second-grade work?" She said, "No."

      I said, "Why?" She said, "Because I only know first-grade stuff."

      In your lives as teachers, think about those professors, those teachers that you didn't want, and I want you to become that person. Because you all know the value of that person.

      You are teachers. You are going to run into politicians. You are going to run into parents. You are going to run into students. You are going to run into mothers and fathers and uncles who think you don't know what you're talking about. Nothing better about being a teacher than to have a parent come up and want to kill you.

      Then you find out that the child has lied. "You did so and so to my . . . "

      "Well, he pulled a gun."

      "He didn't tell me he has a gun." And then they start to beat the kid up right in front of you.

      Well, those days have changed, haven't they? Now you're gonna spend five hours [a day] with the kid, and after three months can you say you know that child? And you walk into an overcrowded classroom--what are you going to say?

      How many of you will stand up to the superintendent? How many of you will get petitions signed because there's 35 in your class and no heat? Because the day you start, that is the day you start to make a change in the world.

* * *

      You've got to lay it on the line. How many times have you looked out of the window of the bus or the car and you've seen that teacher walking with these little people going to the zoo, going to the planetarium? What did you think about them? Did you see them in the classroom, or did you just think to yourself, 'My God, what if she loses one?'

      Teachers are God's children. And you've got to make that change. You've got to know racism and where is it in you. You've got to know bigotry. Where is it in you? You've got to know whether you have problems dealing with females, dealing with men, dealing with color, dealing with accents, dealing with poverty, dealing with middle income--these people you have to teach and you have to be pure and give them a fair chance.

      I don't remember the doctor who operated on this left shoulder when it was broken. I don't remember the name of the fellow that gave me a baseball glove when I never had one. But I do know Mary B. Forchick's name, and I'm still scared of her. And I do know that this woman loved all of us. I do know that this woman at age 20, after teaching for four years, looked at me and said, "You're going to be better than you want to be, young man."

      She called me Mr. Cosby. I hated that name. I didn't know that this 4-foot-11 woman called my mother, got in cahoots with this woman, and made sure that I got her. She could leave the room and nobody talked, this woman nobody wanted. And my mother--in those days, 1949, you had to sign the paper, your parents signed a paper so the teacher could beat you--not only did my mother sign the paper, but she cut the stick for the woman to hit me with.

      As you can see, I'm scarred for life. In my day there was no such thing as dyslexia. There was no ADD [attention deficit disorder]. You were just dumb. You could be an idiot one day--they made you stand in the corner. I'm scarred for life. But that's up to me if I want to stay scarred.

      You are God's children, and you are going to teach God's children. Let no one stand in your way.

      Do not let overcrowded classrooms be a part of your job. A doctor does not walk into a dusty Dumpster to operate. It has to be clean. We cannot as teachers allow them to put us into a situation where we have tomorrow's grown-ups with inferior books, inferior lighting, inferior seating. You can't allow this.

      Think of that teacher that you loved that you never wanted. Think of how much you respect that person and how much you love that person. . . . I want you to think about that person and be that person.

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