Planting a Garden

By Brad McEwen

Sometimes you just get a good vibe about people.

You have occasion to meet them, hopefully spend a little time around them, and before you know it, you’ve got a pretty solid read on them and have subsequently slotted them into the “good guy” category, for lack of a better term.

Such was the case a few months ago, when a trip to Alice Coachman Elementary School for “Read Across America,” brought me to the 5th grade classroom of Ibrahiim Muhammad.

During the few minutes I spent in the social studies teacher’s classroom, first reading a short story and then fielding questions from a particularly bright and engaged group of students, it was clear that Ibrahiim, “Mr. Muhammad,” as he’s known to the children, seemed genuinely excited to be in the classroom, shaping young minds.

Subsequent visits to the school only bolstered my positive opinion of the fourth-year teacher, as every time I encountered him he seemed eager to speak and fill me in on some of the things his children were up to.

So once I started to hear such positive comments about Ibrahiim from others, I knew we needed to sit down for a Beyond the Bank interview, so I could learn a little more about why a young Cuthbert native just a decade removed from graduating from Randolph Clay High School, had decided on a career enriching the lives of children in Dougherty County.

I got my first glimpse of what makes Ibrahiim tick when I asked him about his decision to leave Georgia Southern and come back home to finish school at Albany State.

“The issue was my mother and father, they went their way and I felt I needed to be there, mainly to keep my younger brothers in line,” he said of his parents’ split. “They weren’t bad kids or anything, but I was like the man of the house. My dad always told me, ‘Son, you got to be a man.’ He said, ‘If anything ever happened to me, or me and your mama go our way, you’re in charge.’

“I always believed a man should be a man. It takes a man to raise a boy into a man.

“It was tough, but it’s all about sacrifices. I have this philosophy that when you’re the oldest boy, you’re in charge when mom and dad ain’t around. Point blank. Period. They always tell you, ‘You’ve got two younger brothers that look up to you.’ It’s still that way today.”

As it turns out, his decision to leave GSU and enroll at Albany State also brought with it a change in major, as Ibrahiim decided his current area of study just wasn’t for him.

“I started out as a Criminal Justice major, but something came to me,” he said. “When I left Georgia Southern, I had to think and I said to myself, ‘I don’t think Criminal Justice is something I really want to do.’ My intention was actually to go into the U.S. Army as Military Police. That was my intention out of high school.

“But then the U.S. economy slipped into a recession. The war in Iraq was bad and a lot of people were going to combat fresh out of basic training. With the job I would’ve had, I probably would have been in combat. After having a talk with my family and friends, they were telling me, ‘We’ll feel much safer with you in a college classroom.’”

Although Ibrahiim had decided against his original avenue of study, when it came time to decide on a new major, he said the decision had less to do with what job he wanted and more to do with his overarching goals for his life.

“I never thought I could see myself as a teacher,” Ibrahiim said. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I just saw some of the stuff that my friends would do to our teachers and I said, ‘If some kid does that to me…’

“But my mother’s a teacher. And I always said I wanted to do something that’s going to have a positive impact, not only on children, but just on human society period. I feel, ‘why not try to start a garden? Start it with the youth and the garden will blossom for miles and miles and miles.’”

Of course Ibrahiim readily admits there were some practical motivations behind his decision as well.

“I had to think of something where I could be a positive role model,” he said. “I wasn’t the athletic type and I wasn’t very handy. When I got a car my dad used to stay on me about it, ‘You check the oil in the car?’

“So I had to think of something. I’m quiet in some moments, but I do like to talk. I do like to, not force my thoughts on people, but I try to help people look at things more than just their face value. I finally said, ‘I think teaching is my calling. I want to be a role model that young kids can look up to.’”

While Ibrahiim said he’s long felt it was his responsibility to set a good example for his younger brothers, he said teaching really expands on that as the profession gives him an opportunity to reach a broader audience, so to speak.

Alice Coachman, in particular, which has a significant portion of the student population living in poverty, adds even greater urgency to Ibrahiim’s mission. “The average kids that are coming to school here are born in poverty, or in public housing or are getting government assistance,” he said. “I’m not bashing that at all, because nobody makes it in this world alone. But that’s the reality of it.

“It’s every teacher’s dream to teach the kids that don’t have a lot of issues at home, who have families that are supportive; that’s every teacher’s dream. But, teaching kids that are less fortunate, I believe it’s easier to leave your mark. You’re going to give them something they don’t have. And it makes you learn to be a tougher teacher.”

One of the main things a lot of the kids Ibrahiim teaches don’t have is a stable home life, with two involved parents working together to raise the child. Coming from a family where both his parents were active in his upbringing, provided the basic necessities and held him accountable for his actions, Ibrahiim has developed some strong feelings about the important role of parents in a child’s life.

Throughout our conversation he talked about the valuable life lessons he got from his mom and dad and how those lessons shaped the beliefs he carries with him into the classroom.

“Earlier in the interview I said, ‘It takes a man to raise a boy into a man,’ Ibrahiim said. “Not only that, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes two parents. Boys get to a certain age, there’s stuff you’re going to go through you’re not going to feel comfortable talking to your mother about. I was like that. There’s some stuff that I knew only my dad would understand. And vice versa.

“Growing up we had the finer things. My mother was a teacher, still is a teacher, and my father drove back and forth to Columbus. He was an auditor, the lead auditor at Ft. Benning. Having these two good incomes coming into the house in Cuthbert, Ga., which is not an expensive town, was a lot.

“I can truly say that we were spoiled. But it came with a price. You knew you were going to school. You’re going to get these grades. My dad always said, ‘You can learn every rap song that come on the radio, you can go to school and pass class. You got to go out like you’ve got some sense. That’s just how the world works.’”

Because he realizes a lot of the children he teaches didn’t have that kind of upbringing—especially having an active and involved father—Ibrahiim said he feels it’s imperative for him to take on that role as much as he can.

“I appreciate my upbringing more so now than I did when I was a kid,” he said with smile. “I look at some of the kids who come in now that don’t even have the basics. It was nothing for me to go home to a fridge full of food. I never had to worry about it being dark, about being hungry, just going without.

“Kids nowadays, especially, I hate to say this, in the black community, it’s rare to have a mom and a dad in the household. That’s almost not normal.

“Regardless, even though you are not my children, I look at you as my children.”

The need for kids to have a strong male figure in their lives is also the reason Ibrahiim made the transition to elementary school after spending half of a year teaching middle grades.

As he sees it, elementary school is a critical time to instill the confidence and drive children need to progress through school and ultimately graduate. So by making the switch he believes he can have more of an impact. He also thinks a lot kids at that age are at an even bigger disadvantage when they don’t have a reliable and positive male figure in their lives.

“Both my degrees are in middle grades education,” Ibrahiim said. “I have both my Bachelor’s and Master’s and I’ll start my Specialist degree in January. So I’m actually middle grades certified. But 4th and 5th grades are considered middle grades.

“My first half year I was at Robert Cross Middle School. When they told me about an elementary school job, I said I’d give it a try. And then I fell in love with it because kids mentally drop out of school in middle school. If you can save them before they get to middle school, you probably have kept kids from destroying themselves.

“And to be honest with you, there’s not a lot of males on the elementary school level, period. If you can get a male on the elementary level, you almost have found a diamond in the rough.”

While he believes his presence at the elementary level is having a positive impact, Ibrahiim did add that despite his best efforts it’s still challenging to make a difference because he’s only with his students during the school day.

Once they leave for the day, they head right back into their often difficult home lives, where support may be lacking.

“It’s very frustrating,” Ibrahiim said of what happens at home with a lot of the children he teaches. “My sister has a 7 year-old son that I keep occasionally. He’s nothing like the average kid here. True enough it goes back to him having a positive upbringing, with both parents in the house. He’s going to be different.

“My parents always told me, especially my father, if you have a child you’re going to take care it. You’re going to take care of your own children. I know things happen, but you have to at least provide the basics for a child.

“And what I mean by basics, I don’t mean getting them Jordans every other Saturday or expensive video games. I don’t mean that. I mean a decent area to live in, food, clothing shelter. That’s what I call the basics.”

Even though it frustrates him to see children living in these difficult circumstances, Ibrahiim said he understands things happen to people, so he always tries to work with parents to make things better for their children.

Of course, despite his best efforts, he said his offer to work with the parents often falls on deaf ears.

“You try to meet the parents halfway, but sometimes there’s just not a connection,” he said. “When you see there’s no connection there, then 90 percent of the time you’re like, ‘This is why Johnny acts the way he acts.’

“Children are a reflection of their parents. If you’ve never been taught to do better, how are you ever going to do any better?

“Parents like that, I listen to them,” he continued. “I’m not going to force you to believe what I’m saying about your child. But my thing is, there’s not really a big difference in how a child acts at school and how a child acts at home. There might be a slight difference, but like they say, I was born at nighttime. I was born at 4:18, my mother told me. You can’t sit there and tell me he’s so disrespectful at school but he’s the best kid in the world at home. That doesn’t add up. So I was born at night, just not last night.”

Although Ibrahiim is still a relatively young man, he says he’s got an old soul and that he knew early on that he wanted to be a positive influence on others. He said it started with his younger brothers, but also extended beyond that.

One particular memory he’s proud of is a time when one of his teachers, who he greatly respected asked him a favor.

“Knowing how close me and my brothers were and how they looked up to me, I always felt someone was watching me,” Ibrahiim said. “I remember when I got back from Georgia Southern that summer, my old math teacher, I’ll never forget her, Ms. Brown, her and her husband were going on an anniversary trip. She had three kids at home. Her daughter went and stayed with her aunt, so she asked my brother for my phone number.

“She called and said, ‘Hey Ibrahiim. Me and my husband we’re going to go out of town and my boys don’t really want to go with my sister.’ I said, ‘I understand that.’ She said, ‘Would you mind staying in the house with my boys while we’re gone? I’ll pay you and everything.’

“I said, ‘Ms. Brown it’s not about the money. If you need me to stay with them I’d be glad to, free of charge,’

“So that’s the mentality—you never know who’s watching you. She came back and told my mother, ‘I see the relationship he has with his brothers. Even when he graduated high school, he would come out to the school and he was always respectful. He never really acted out of character.’

“I truly believe character is a small thing that makes a big difference.”

Although Ibrahiim feels the way he behaves and the way he presents himself to his students—showing them that they can aspire to be whatever they want to be—he does understand the reality that some of the children in his classes come from an environment where education is not valued and where someone who has had the kind of success he’s had is viewed in a negative way.

“I could be looked at as a geek to them,” he said of the perception some students have of him. “And they look at it like, ‘This joker (gang banger) don’t do nothin', but he’s always got a fat knot of money.’ So I look like a geek to them.

“It’s frustrating because I’ve had issues with kids who talk about gang bangers, stuff like that. I tell them, ‘Let me tell you what gang bangers are; they’re a bunch of people who need love and attention.’ I mean you think about it, most gang bangers they come from messed up home environments. What kid do you know that grew up with structure and love and attention, got everything they really needed, who joined the gang? If they do join a gang, it’s just something to do. They’re trying to belong. They’re having an identity crisis. That’s all that is.

“With children you have to model. I have to constantly get on my boys about, ‘Pull your pants up, tuck in your shirt.’ I don’t ever walk around with shirttail out and you never see my pants hanging below my waist. With children you’ve got to model.”

And while he understands how all the influences in a child’s life can shape a child’s future, he firmly believes that by connecting with them in the classroom, they’re getting something powerful that will help guide them to a better future.

“Education is the key to success,” he said. “Education is your ticket, really, to everything. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you look at a lot of kids, ‘okay you’re home environment is not the best, then school is your way to change that.’

“It’s hard for a kid to see that.”

But that lesson, Ibrahiim said, is in many ways more important than the subject matter he’s teaching them every day.

“I’m not saying the social studies part is not important,” he said. “But for some kids, school is a safe haven for them. I could stand there, teaching, right behind them, talking about World War II, how the United States tried to avoid it, how the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. But when they get on the bus, they don’t care about why the United States got into World War II. They’re more worried about, ‘I’m just fighting for everything.’

“So at least I can help them feel like, ‘From the time I get on the bus in the morning, to the time I get out, I know I have some form of security.’

“It’s important they know someone cares about them.”

Throughout my conversation with Ibrahiim I couldn’t help but feel that the children whose lives he is touching are fortunate to have someone who cares so much about their future.

But I also had the feeling that all of Albany is blessed to have someone like Ibrahiim Muhammad working tireless to make a positive impact that will resonate throughout this community for years to come.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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