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Catera Scott, assistant principal at a public charter school, wants to make sure her students are aware she came from a world like theirs.
“I let them know I grew up in Philadelphia, in a single-parent home, to let them see that it’s possible to live your dream, and also to see what it took to get there,” she says.
She focuses on maximizing her students’ opportunities. She also focuses on the seemingly small things, such as a smile that can bring hope. “Without thinking, we may steal people’s joy. We may steal people’s voice,” she says.
Ms. Scott spoke to the Monitor about the Eighth Commandment – “Thou shalt not steal” – as part of our series on the Ten Commandments, which explores the ways in which these ancient religious principles continue to matter in modern life.
In terms of her own education, Ms. Scott earned an academic scholarship for high school, and she went to the historically black, all-female Spelman College in Atlanta. Along the way, the message and sense of mission were clear, she recalls: “You matter. You have a voice – a chance to change the world in a positive way.”
Small things loom large in Catera Scott’s world. A smile, while requiring so little, can bring hope. A turn of phrase, while just dialect to one listener, represents familiarity and even comfort to another. And while some see math as just numbers, math equals opportunity to Ms. Scott.
Ms. Scott sees the power of small things – and she sees what happens when they’re missing. She’s determined to do her part to prevent that.
“Without thinking, we may steal people’s joy. We may steal people’s voice,” says Ms. Scott at the church where her husband is pastor.
She spoke to the Monitor about the Eighth Commandment – Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15) – as part of our series on the Ten Commandments, which explores the ways in which these ancient religious principles continue to matter in modern life.
While the taking of property may appear to be the most obvious violation of the Eighth Commandment, Ms. Scott sees the more insidious withholding of seemingly small things to be a truer threat. She wants to ensure these things are there for others.
The only child of a single mother, she made good use of the opportunities available to her. After graduating from the Gesu School – an independent Roman Catholic school in Philadelphia that has become a national model for urban education – she earned an academic scholarship for high school at the exclusive Springside School, located in a tonier part of town. From there she went to the historically black, all-female Spelman College in Atlanta.
Along the way, the message and sense of mission were clear, she recalls: “You matter. You have a voice – a chance to change the world in a positive way.”
These days, Ms. Scott is still in school – as an educator. For eight years after Spelman, she was a math teacher, and recently, she was named assistant principal, responsible for eight middle school classrooms in her public charter school. She focuses on maximizing her students’ opportunities so they, too, have choices later – a critical intangible denied to urban students when academic preparation is thwarted, she observes.
She is proud of her school and its standards. “A lot of students [elsewhere] aren’t put in front of grade-level material. By lowering the bar, you may have prevented them from accessing the SATs,” and thus college and good jobs. Her own charges keep up with grade-level curriculum material, even if that means extra tutoring or remediation time.
There’s no slacking. “Only in education can you either put kids in front of a movie every day or teach circles around the class and still be paid the same,” says Ms. Scott, a believer in teacher incentive pay.
She makes sure her students are aware she came from a world like theirs, and that often she was studying while others played. “I let them know I grew up in Philadelphia, in a single-parent home, to let them see that it’s possible to live your dream, and also to see what it took to get there.” When students graduate, they know where to find her, and even from college will FaceTime her with a request for an internship recommendation or for help with a particularly thorny math problem.
As a student, Ms. Scott liked it when she recognized her own “voice” in the academics, and she tries to find academic content that resonates for her own students. Her elementary school threaded the black experience into the curriculum with assemblies and special assignments. In her high school, which had a different demographic and usually a more classical curriculum, she remembers being touched when assigned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” hearing in the characters’ dialect her Southern-born grandmother’s voice. At Spelman, even the black voices were diverse – from Congo, Trinidad, and Nigeria, for instance.
“I identify very strongly with my race. Instead of shying away from race,” she says, “let’s lean in. Let’s learn from each other.”
“A tough cookie”
Margaret Mary O’Neill, who worked with Ms. Scott’s mother at the Gesu School, watched the young woman grow up. “I appreciate what a strong family she and her mother made,” Ms. O’Neill says. She recalls that as a child, Ms. Scott had a very clear sense of herself that persisted through recurrent family crises. Ms. Scott’s mother endured frequent and serious hospitalizations for heart failure, and ultimately received a heart and lung transplant in 1997. “For all her softness, Catera is a tough cookie,” says Ms. O’Neill.
The child, Ms. O’Neill recalls, was “clearly the star” of her eighth grade graduating class of about 50 students. “If an opportunity were presented, she was wise enough to seek more information and see if the opportunity was right for her,” says Ms. O’Neill. But she wasn’t one to take an opportunity from someone else: “She did not make herself shine by dimming someone else. She’s always the kind of person who is happy when she sees you, and always happy for someone else’s good fortune.”
Ms. Scott is a woman of prayer. She’s “asked and received” many times over in her young life, and as a result she’s confident that she is heard by God. Through her mother’s illnesses, church was her constant, a place of joy and peace that her grandmother kept in place for her. She remembers praying for her mom, and feeling answered when her mother received the transplant.
She also prayed that she would surmount the paperwork and financial hurdles of college and would graduate, which she did. Even about seemingly lesser concerns, she detects answers: “It’s like, ‘OK, God. You’re showing me you’re here.’ Things like that strengthen your faith.”
If some of her other college prayers had been answered as she’d hoped, however, Ms. Scott wouldn’t currently be thinking about middle school math. Aiming to make a lot of money via a career in business, she prayed many times for opportunities that never panned out. Today, citing Romans 8:28 – “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” – she believes that her desire and God’s will were not aligned back then, but are now: “‘OK, God, whatever is Your will.’ I don’t see everything in my limited scope.”
Guardian of congregation’s joy
On Sundays at Philadelphia’s Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church, Ms. Scott sees her role as guardian of the joy of the congregation. This is the church where her husband became pastor in 2017 at the age of 26. But Ms. Scott’s plate is full with work as well as their two young children, so she’s not yet doing the kind of outreach she envisions – bringing in a speaker on financial affairs, for example, or on health and wellness. And she hopes the church’s Christian school will expand its enrollment.
But she knows from experience what brings people to the church. Sitting in a former classroom, surrounded by the bulletin board remnants of spelling and geography lessons, she reflects, “Life is hard. There are family issues. There are work issues. When you walk into a church, you want to walk out feeling that you’ve received joy and hope.”
The gossip, rumors, and spats that can be part of human endeavors undermine that joy, she says. “‘You weren’t supposed to walk that way,’ or ‘You shouldn’t have said that’ – I’ve seen that multiple times, people have left the church because they’ve been hurt.” This preacher’s wife is not afraid to speak, keeping her reprimand short and simple, usually “that was not nice.”
At the same time, she knows what to do to foster joy. “I’m kind of shy, and here there are hundreds of people. I have to push myself. I make sure I’m smiling. I’m calling people when they’re sick, when they’ve lost a loved one.” At church, she says, “I try to speak to every single person, by name, and to have personal conversations with each of them. I want them to know they’re seen.
“I hug them,” she adds. “They may not even have received a hug that week.”
Part 9: ‘Thou shalt not steal’: Even someone else’s joy, says one educator