The Call That Changed My Life

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It was a hot summer day when I received a call from my friend, Richard Nyankori, that would change my life for the next seven years.

The call starting out as usual: a greeting and a run-down of his day. But this time, things were a bit different. Richard just started a new job as the Special Assistant to the Chancellor for DCPS. I listened intently because some of the things he was telling me I could not believe. As the conversation was about to end he said something to me that made me think he was totally out of his mind. “I need you to be the executive assistant to the new Chancellor, Michelle Rhee,” he said. To which my response was, “Are you crazy?” Since I was 17 years old I had been working in retail and I never saw myself sitting behind a desk working for someone and something I knew nothing about. He had many reasons as to why he thought this would work but honestly, I was not sold. But the more I thought about it, I figured why not, it doesn’t hurt to have a conversation with someone.

I knew nothing about this woman whom my best friend loved, admired and respected. I started doing some research as I always do before all job interviews. After several phone calls the interview was set up for a Sunday afternoon, which I thought was kinda weird. I was instructed to meet Michelle at her house in the afternoon. I drove to upper NW Washington, DC and this thin woman answered the door in shorts and a tank top. As I stood there in a dress shirt and pants, with resume in hand, I remember thinking, “I know it’s hot as hell outside, but shorts?!” Her house was being totally renovated so we did the interview outside on the front steps. As we sat down and started to chat, the interview kept getting interrupted by people walking down the street yelling, “Are you Chancellor Rhee?” She would politely smile and say yes and we would continue the interview. The interview ended and she said, “I would like you to spend half a day in the office with my current scheduler and assistant and then meet with Kaya Henderson. I agreed but walked away from the interview thinking, “I’m not really feeling her and I don’t get all the hype.”

After all the meetings and interview with Kaya, I started becoming more intrigued with the job than the person I would be working for. As I normally do with life changing events, I made a list of pros and cons, prayed and solicited advice from close friends and mentors. After all this, I decided to step out on faith and take the job as Executive Assistant to Chancellor Michelle Rhee. We played phone tag for a week but finally connected and I accepted the position. She was excited and then said, “Can you start this week?” I said no, I need to give two weeks and she said ok.

In November 2007  I started my new job and, although I didn’t know it then, a career in education. From my first day on the job, I MR and SVBstarted learning more about the education system, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and Michelle Rhee. As the days, weeks and months passed, my admiration and respect for Michelle grew. But I also began to find out that for as many people who liked her, there were just as many who disliked her. As I attended various social functions throughout DC and people begin to figure out who I was and most importantly whom I worked, I began to notice how conversations changed. The questions started coming one after another. “How is she?” “Is she really that mean?” “Do you like working for her?” “Why doesn’t she smile more?” ”Why is she changing so many things?” I would also hear statements like, “I like her and it’s time for a change.” “I support everything she is doing.” “I think she is moving too fast.” I was totally amazed at the behavior of and comments from some of the people I’d interact with. I thought, “How do you hate/dislike someone you don’t even know or haven’t even met?”

One great thing I have learned in my seven years of working with Michelle is that you cannot believe everything you read or see in the media. My boss is not mean, angry or heartless as most try to portray her. Instead she is focused, determined and loves kids and teachers; her main goal at DCPS was and always remained the same: to improve education for every kid in DCPS. Some may disagree with her style and tactics but I’ve spent more time with her than most and her goal was and has always been the same: a quality education for all kids!

During the past seven years, I have learned so much about education, had the opportunity to work with some of the best educators, have seen positive strides in education in DCPS and other districts, and have met so many great parents, staff, teachers and students. I also have learned many great lessons from Michelle Rhee that now guide me in many things I do:

  • Always stay focused and determined
  • Never let the naysayers distract you from what you are trying to achieve
  • Always pray
  • Know that anything is possible
  • Ask the right questions/people and you will get what you need
  • Know that sometimes you will have to make the hard decisions that may not be liked by most
  • Stay true to who you are and what you believe
  • Be prepared with a backup plan since there will be times you will fail at some things
  • Don’t be afraid to push the envelope sometimes
  • To be a great leader, lead, motivate and inspire
  • Keep fighting the good fight
  • Study and know your craft; always stay well informed

Michelle has not only been a great boss, but a great friend. We have shared many unforgettable meals, conversations and Michelle at Party Smallervacations together. Because of her I’ve experienced some of the best things in my life, like meeting Oprah when I attended my first and only Oprah show and spending the holidays together when she shared her family with me and adopted the name ShawnyBear from her daughters!

I am ready to take what I have learned while working side by side with one of the smartest people I know and apply everything that she has taught me to my next adventure in life. As I leave my position of seven years with Michelle Rhee, I am grateful for so many lessons and the opportunity to call her a boss, mentor and friend!

Thank you, Michelle. I may not see you everyday but you will always be in my heart.

Great moments make great memories! SVB