“Things are not always as they appear” is a piece of advice many people hear growing up, but is a lesson that deserves to be repeated and reheard again and again over a lifetime.
At a convocation at Texas A&M University-Commerce Tuesday, staff with the Greenville Independent School District were treated to a pep talk that demonstrated once again that a book’s cover doesn’t always do its contents justice.
After Greenville High School Principal Heath Jarvis finished introducing educational and clinical psychologist Dr. Adolph Brown as the event’s guest speaker, a young man wearing a colorful sequined blazer walked out on stage and began dancing acrobatically to a musical medley that included the song, “Let’s Get it Started” by the Black Eyed Peas.
At the end of the song, another man – with his hair styled in dreadlock-like braids sticking out in all directions and dressed in an over-sized T-shirt and baggy jeans with backpack on his back – ran up to the stage and introduced himself as the actual Dr. Adolph Brown.
He explained that before the convocation, as GISD staff were funneling into Ferguson Auditorium, he had been standing in the lobby, observing how people reacted to his appearance.
According to Brown, some attendees took double takes, others avoided eye contact, some looked at him like he must be lost and others smiled uncomfortably. But, when Brown took the stage he nonjudgementally explained, “This is how I used to look when I was in school.”
He then injected some intergenerational comedic relief by comparing his appearance to that of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, ‘90s rapper Coolio and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, a character from the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.”
On a more serious note, Brown used the guise of his younger self to remind educators not to assume too much about their students based on appearances.
He explained that research has shown that “if you see someone you don’t know, your brain will try to find where to put that person, so if you’ve only seen me on the news like this (he said, turning so the audience could see him in a mugshot-like profile), that’s where your brain will put me.
“But, our brain helps us to be efficient – it does not help us to be correct,” Brown added. “Your brain is just trying to make things easier for you.”
As Brown began to tell his own, personal story, he frequently started sentences with second-person phrases like “because of you” or “it was you who” as he expressed gratitude for how some educators were able to look past the surface and were positive influences on his life.
“It was because of you being able to look at me and see the tree in the seed, that I was able to grow,” Brown said.
The hardships that Brown described included his parents’ divorce when he was two years old and being estranged from his father until he was 18, his older brother being murdered when he was 11 years old, and growing up in poverty.
As Brown continued with his story, many of the school employees he praised weren’t teachers, but bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others who looked after him.
His testimonials included one about a bus driver who would lend him one of her children’s old coats when she would pick him up on cold mornings and saw that he wasn’t wearing a coat. Then, the same bus driver would take the coat back each day before she dropped him off at home, “because she didn’t want to offend (his) mother.”
Brown also said the same bus driver would sometimes take the scenic route to give him time to finish his homework on the bus.
In another story, he talked about cafeteria workers meeting him and some other students who were living in poverty after school on Fridays to fill their backpacks with small, ready-to-eat food items so they would have something to eat over the weekends.
“I can teach pedagogy (teaching methods) in my sleep, but you can’t teach heart,” Brown said as he stressed the importance of empathy in education.
Later in his presentation, Brown illustrated this point further by removing his backpack, opening it and revealing another backpack inside of it and said, “Everybody has a second backpack … stuff they carry around, but you don’t see.”
While Brown made a point to give people who worked in education credit for helping him in life, he also shared a lot of the wisdom his grandfather gave him while growing up.
In one of several references to lessons his grandfather taught him, Brown pulled a round mirror out of his pocket and said, “He told me every day to look in the mirror and get rid of the old person and make room for the better person.”
That mirror later proved to be central to Brown’s theme as he illustrated how that bit of advice from his grandfather and other positive influences helped him to continually reflect to become a better version of himself.
As the Michael Jackson song, “Man in the Mirror” began to play, Brown removed his wig and shed his baggy T-shirt and jeans to reveal a much cleaner cut and more nicely dressed appearance.
Toward the end of his talk with GISD staff, Brown said, “Your past is a place of reference, not a place of residence,” and “an education is the only thing that once you get it, it’s yours and no one can take it away.”
Brown’s accomplishments include being a former middle school special education teacher, being an educational and clinical psychologist, having the distinction of becoming a tenured professor at the age of 29, being a former president of the Virginian Association of Black Psychologists, writing and co-writing books about education and business, and being a renowned humorist and edu-tainer.
The young man who initially came out on stage as the “imposter Dr. Adolph Brown” was professional musician, dancer and actor Jahzeel Mumford, who often travels with Brown as he speaks at events.