I have to admit, writing this foreword was a different and, in some ways, more challenging task than I faced as I sat down to write any I've published before it. Not only does this focus on two of my greatest friends but two strong, purposeful, and unstoppable women who I admire deeply. I hoped to capture for our readers what they give to the world each day, but I knew my words would never do them justice. Truth be told, I didn’t approach Taylor Anderson and Nicole Moneyham about letting me feature them on Foreword South because they are my friends, but because I knew their stories were important to share. I hope by giving you a piece of who they are it would be as inspiring, even as healing, as getting to know them over the years has been for me. I have watched these friends over the last year as they each turned the page and transitioned into new chapters of their lives. Suddenly, they faced a new responsibility that carried an enormous weight. They were becoming educators.
While you will learn their stories are intertwined, in many ways Taylor and Nicole are very different. Taylor grew up in Kingsland, Georgia where she was raised primarily by her mother. Bold but sensitive and unassuming, Taylor certainly has the spirit of a provider and caretaker which she credited the women in her life for passing on to her. Taylor recalled her mother being a hard worker from a young age and the example that set for her. Her mother's career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation required her to work a lot, but Taylor’s grandmother, Louise, and her Aunt Mary played critical roles in raising her too. She recalls spending summers with them when she was young and her aunt – who for a period of time as a domestic worker – would drag her along to work at homes and churches notably always owned by white individuals.
In the South, there’s a deep history of Black women who have served as house cleaners and caretakers (colloquially most often referred to as “maids” at one point) for white families. In fact, in 1935, as many as six out of ten urban white families living above the average poverty line at that time had full-time domestic workers. Nonetheless, Taylor fondly remembers the pride her Aunt Mary carried in her work and the honey buns Aunt Mary gave her when she was a helping hand. She is thankful for those summers and the lessons she learned then that she holds on to even today. As she spoke about each of these women, there was such reverence in her voice. “[Aunt Mary] showed me how to something and do it well so you could always be prideful about your work," she shared.
While Taylor was growing up in South Georgia, she enjoyed what she describes as a quality education and a rather fortunate childhood. She still experienced the typical pressures of growing up, excelling in school, making friends, and learning to navigate the transition to college, but she credits her family for their support. Without a doubt, the bar was always set high.
“It was an expectation that I would work hard and try my best. I wasn’t simply rewarded for it because it was all that my mother would accept," she described.
This pushed Taylor even in the hardest times. In the first semester of her senior year of high school, her Aunt Mary passed away. While she would go along to graduate from high school and attend Auburn University, tears welled up in her eyes as she expressed the difficulty of knowing her aunt could not be physically present for these momentous occasions. Yet, despite the heartache of that loss, her determination simply did not waiver.
Back in Atlanta, she attended Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and Dekalb County Schools. There was no way she could have ever anticipated she would return to APS years later, except this time as a teacher. Speaking on her own academic experience growing up, Nicole stated, “I just had to make to make the best of it. But I knew I wanted more for myself.”
APS, a large metropolitan school district with an enrollment of 54, 946 students has had a series of struggles including low performance data, charter failures, and even an infamous cheating scandal on standardized test that revealed 180 educators in over 44 schools modified test answers in order to improve results. Comprising over 80% of the district’s racial make-up, Black students have undeniably been impacted most by the district’s hardships. The scandal was only a piece of the puzzle; it became evident that teachers, not just students, were in need of more support.
A supportive family, mentors, and her own perseverance launched Nicole into an entirely new environment when she came to Auburn University as a freshman in the fall of 2011. Suddenly, she found herself at predominately white institution, also known as PWI, where she worried about how she would transition and be perceived.
“You need to make your own money and do what you need to do to take care of your family. This was the lesson they taught me.”
It was at Auburn that Taylor would meet Nicole (and ME). Nicole Moneyham can truly only be summed up as a one-of-a-kind individual. Her fiery and bright personality commands any room she enters. She walks only in her truth and this refreshing authenticity is an undeniable draw for those who encounter her. Some might even say her flamboyant personality is a product of her roots in Atlanta, Georgia where “carefree Blackness”, personal style, and confidence exudes through the streets of the city. Let it be known: Nicole doesn’t just hail from the Georgia capital, she calls East Atlanta home.
“I spent the early years of my life being raised by a mother who was very religious. At that time, it was all about church and school – she didn’t play,” Nicole reflected.
In the third grade, things shifted when she started living with her father and his side of the family full time. “My father is much more laid-back and he comes from Luverne, Alabama where we would often visit,” she continues, “I would spend time in Luverne running around with no shoes, cleaning chickens, hanging out on the porch and I learned to appreciate that simplicity.” It’s this simplicity that Nicole says is a staple in Southern culture that she actually hopes we never lose.
“I really didn’t want to be perceived as 'ghetto', and loud and the girl neck rolling… which, honestly, is a little bit of who I am.So early on [at Auburn] I kept quiet.”
Given this nation’s glaring history of racial tensions that persist even today, it’s worth noting that we are just 63 years removed from the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board. The first African-American student at Auburn University, Harold A. Franklin, didn’t even enroll until January of 1964. This lead me to question what the experience was like for two Black women entering a campus where the presence of white people, and men, remains dominant.
"Insecure,” Taylor remarked, "I can remember feeling like I didn't fit. It wasn't anything like I expected it to be. I had been around white people in school but it was different.”
Taylor shared that before anyone even began to get to know her, she cut her hair completely off and chose to rock a natural hairstyle. “No one even knew me but my interactions with men, and white people in general, changed.”
For Nicole, she found that Auburn made her think about race in a way she never had to before.
“I always knew racism was a problem. I just had never experienced it in that way,” she recalled. “I will never forget the night of Barack Obama’s re-election. I was so excited – it was my first time I ever voted and we were reelecting our first Black president. When he won, we all went to Toomer’s Corner.” Toomer’s Corner is a historic landmark for Auburn's campus and the entire city of Auburn, Alabama. Students traditionally gather there and roll Toomer’s Oaks in moments of pride, most often when the Auburn Tigers win a football game. On the night of the election, it became a gathering spot for President Obama’s supporters, and especially the Black students at Auburn that helped reelect him. As students rolled the trees in celebration, cheered with friends, and took in the historic moment, Nicole recalls a particular incident that has never faded from her memory:
“This girl driving by rolled down her window and just started yelling ‘nigger’ at all of us. It really kind of broke my heart to see and hear that.”
Both of these women were forced to "learn the ropes" of navigating a space and institution that was simply never designed for them. Despite the battles they would face, their efforts still brought success, opportunity, and experience that ultimately would propel them to their next move: the classroom.
Neither of them chose education as a major, but when Teach for America came on their radar, they saw the opportunity as a chance to tackle issues they felt most passionately about and even see their students leap over the hurdles they unfortunately had to encounter. After they each graduated in the spring of 2016, they quickly were off to their placements. Taylor landed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Nicole, as mentioned, found herself back in Atlanta. Interestingly, both of them were appointed as Kindergarten teachers; the five and six-year olds they would greet on the first day of school would impact their lives forever. Taylor described her experience teaching in Baton Rouge:
“Teaching in Baton Rouge, Louisiana…it’s hard. Louisiana has a history of segregation and racism. Hurricane Katrina gravely impacted the education system and only set progress further behind. I’ve had to have tough conversations with them about situations like Alton Sterling… well, I didn’t have to but I did. I didn’t know how to prepare for it, I’m not their parent. I had to talk to them about it, Though, and I just figured I would rather apologize later than ask permission.”
Last week, July 5 marked the one-year anniversary since Alton Sterling, a 37-year old Black man, was shot and killed by an on-duty Baton Rouge police officer while he was pinned to the ground. As video footage of the shooting went viral, Baton Rouge erupted in protests. A cloud hung over the city in the early days of Taylor’s teaching career and then, suddenly, Mother Nature only made things worse. Just as the school year started, the city experienced devastating floods as a result of torrential rain. She hardly knew her students, but Taylor knew they needed her help and their families would too. She reached out to her own network through social media to raise money and purchase the items people would need to recover. I recall exchanging text messages with her at that time, and one of the things that stood out was when Taylor told me she just wanted to get her kids back to school and back to normal. I found her love and care for them to already be so profound.
More tough conversations would come for both of these educators in their first year. Nicole admits, she found it difficult to find the right things to say as racial tensions and violence only continued to spark around the nation.
“There’s a lot of pressure of teachers to not simply teach but to help these kids learn who they are. I’m a teacher but also a counselor, a mom, a doctor. Not just for my students, but their parents too. It is really important to me that they [my students] understand what comes along with being Black and I want to, in the future, find more ways to do so even though they are so young.”
Nicole draws on her own personal experiences and relationship building skills to reach her kids even on the tough days. She knows she can’t cover everything, or be everything they need her to be, but she overcame the biggest obstacles in her classroom last year by leveraging the close relationships she built with each and every child.
“The teachers that had the most impact on my life built a relationship with me beyond the classroom – not saying you have to share their background – but the more you communicate and the way you allow yourself to be vulnerable with them then they are likely to do the same with you.”
As I asked her to draw on the most critical lesson she has had to instill in her students this year, she laughed, and with no second thought, it rolled off her tongue: “You can’t hit someone just because you’re mad.” Straightening her face and in a more serious tone she added, “Really. They need to know you can’t hurt someone because you’re hurt.”
In a community under deep distress over the last year, Taylor has turned to other outside resources to spark the conversations that will dig in to what her kids are seeing and hearing on the news, but will also grow their emotional intelligence. She studied guides from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance website. Following the controversial announcement that neither officer Blane Salomni or Howie Lake II would be charged for Alton Sterling’s death, she designed an activity for her students to talk about how they felt while learning the history of activism. She states:
”I won’t be in Baton Rouge forever but I had to teach them that they have to stand up and be better citizens for their own neighborhood.”
The first year in the classroom for any educator is a challenging road to say the least, but as I listened to two of the strongest women I know reflect on their experiences the love and care for each and everyone one of their kids poured out. They came to teaching on an unconventional path, but these students are certainly not just their guinea pigs. They’re their motivation.
The students in Ms. Moneyham’s class have even taught her a few lessons. She says, “They have taught me how to better communicate my needs. It’s been a gift. They have given me the gift of learning to really clearly communicate my needs and even in my own life I need to be able to do that. I need people to be able to understand that.” The number one lesson she states her students have taught her:
"They have shown me love. Unconditional love is real.”
In Ms. Anderson’s classroom, she is already learning a few things that are informing her next steps beyond her time with Teach for America. “I will be Dr. Anderson,” she declares, “I hope to pursue school psychology and explore some interdisciplinary work that helps bring cultural competency lessons in to the classroom. I can see that it’s needed.”
“I just want to see more positive images for kids and for our community,” Nicole remarks. In the future, she thinks her time in the classroom will inform the work she wants to do in the entertainment industry. Working with companies that will showcase young people of color that the kids she has today will look up to is an absolute must.
For the next 11 years, Nicole and Taylor's students will continue through their primary educational years. They will never return to Ms. Anderson or Ms. Moneyham’s classrooms, but for these students and their first-year teachers, they will carry the memories of this unpredictable and scary, but magnificent and eye-opening journey they went on together. Hand in hand. Ultimately, they didn’t just learn their sight words and or their shapes in those classrooms. They learned when they were at school they could be loved. They could be safe. Ms. Anderson and Ms. Moneyham gave them that, but these two will be the first to tell you it doesn’t make them special. They came to do right by their students. Maybe it doesn't, but in my opinion, it makes them good.
And, ultimately, it's the will of the good who will push us forward.
Special thanks to Atlanta-based photographer, Chaz Russell for providing the all the photos for this story. To see more of his work visit instagram.com/chaztho.