A strict moral code and ultra-ambitious work ethic made her one of the top teachers in America. But her most important lesson was the one she taught herself.
Birdette Hughey never wanted to be a math teacher.
At age three, she hoped to become a competitive ice skater, following in the footsteps of her older sister. In junior high, she decided she’d be the first female pro football player — either a wide receiver or a tight end because of her speed. Then, in college, she thought it might be better to be the first female president of the United States.
“I was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to be the leader of the free world,’” Hughey says, as if it were a foregone conclusion.
Hughey, now thirty-three, is 5’8” and a quarter, with almond-colored skin and a slender frame that makes her look like she’s still a teenager. She has done none of the things she wanted to do when she was younger — at least not professionally. But her hyper-ambitious persona has translated well to a career in the classroom — so well that she was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2011.
In her first year teaching, Hughey raised the scores of her Greenwood High School Algebra I students by a staggering amount — the proportion passing statewide tests jumped from fifty-one percent to eighty-six percent. Since then, she’s met President Obama; helped turn around a school in Baltimore; and is now laying the groundwork for a program that would give young women in Mississippi a place to have difficult conversations about things like sexuality, body image, and their relationships with God.
“There are a lot of expectations on women and young girls in society,” Hughey says. “There are so many times where what has to be done is prescribed for you. You have to get this certain grade level; you have to meet this GPA; you have to carry yourself in this way.
“Instead of having these black-and-white cookie cutter rules,” she continues, “It’s more like, ‘This is what society says. Now what do I believe and how am I going to reconcile what I believe with what’s expected of me?’”
* * *
Ironically, Hughey used to see the world in black and white.
She grew up in DeSoto, Texas, a Dallas suburb with a population of about 15,000, and attended the nearby First Baptist Academy, a conservative private school affiliated with a church led by Rev. Robert Jeffress, a pastor who has attracted widespread controversy for his virulent statements against gays and members of other religions.
Her grandmother on her father’s side was a teacher, and both of Hughey’s parents have taught at the college level. As a result, Hughey knew she would attend college — and she knew she needed to excel to live up to her parents’ expectations.
“If you got an A, it was alright,” Hughey’s sister, Ebonie Jackson, says. “If it was a B or a C, you couldn’t go home.”
Hughey chose to attend public middle and high school in DeSoto, which she felt would nurture her intellect more than the religious academy — although she remained extremely committed to her faith. Her family attended a megachurch run by the civil rights leader Rev. Zan Holmes Jr.; Hughey’s parents put so much stock in Holmes that Jackson’s middle name is “Zan.” The church had some liberal tendencies, but young Birdette maintained a resolute sense of right and wrong governed by a literal interpretation of the Bible. She started tithing as a teenager. When she was sixteen, she didn’t even have a job, but would always keep $5 in her glove compartment to donate on Sunday. When she ran track, she volunteered to lead the team in prayer. She vowed not to have sex before marriage.
“A lot of religious stuff is very gray,” Jackson says. “But my sister will find a black and white area.”
Always an overachiever, Hughey was active in multiple organizations while also running track and cross country. When she fractured her leg during her junior year, she ran on it anyway. She convinced herself that chocolate was a painkiller and started eating M&Ms before her races to dull the throbbing.
After the season was over, she finally went to the doctor.
“He told me I ran the risk of stepping over the finish line and having my shin split in half,” Hughey recalls, laughing. “But it didn’t.”
She now recognizes her over-commitment as a problem — in fact, a disorder called “obsessive passion” that was first identified by the psychology professor Robert Vallerand.
“It causes people to overdo activities that they love,” Hughey says. “They do it to a point where they can no longer enjoy it — if they’re no longer competing, they’ll stop a sport completely.”
For Hughey, the path to satisfaction was clear: to compete was to succeed was to be happy. This continued into college, when she headed to Florida A&M University on a full academic scholarship.
As part of her five-year MBA program, Hughey snagged several coveted internships. At eighteen years old, she was making $12.50 an hour at IBM. By the time she was twenty, she’d moved up to $32 an hour at Kimberly Clarke. Her drive to succeed was relentless. She once bought a plane ticket in order to complete a paper. Yet she was noticeably different from her peers in the business program.
“We had to write these business journals,” Hughey recalls. “I talked about how I wanted to be the Michael Jordan of education. I also wanted to do a teen home for pregnant girls whose families may have kicked them out as a result of their pregnancy. I wanted to do a homeless shelter, just all sorts of social service initiatives.”
When she ran for president of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, a debate arose about whether she could handle some aspects of the job. One of the president’s key duties, for instance, involved taking money at the door of parties — but Hughey didn’t go to parties.
“She didn’t believe that things that happened at parties were reflective of her walk with Christ,” Jackson says.
Hughey ended up winning the election, but she didn’t compromise her values. She made sure everything was set up for each party. Then she left, went to sleep, woke up at two a.m., came back, counted the money and wrote up a report for the chapter’s records.
After college Hughey spent a few years in the business world, selling Johnson & Johnson contact lenses. At the same time, she became involved with the Girl Scouts of the USA, recruiting at-risk teenage girls to join the organization. She also began teaching students at a church program, helping them prepare for standardized tests — an experience that kickstarted her own company, Dream Katchers, focused on working with high schoolers to plan for college.
Eventually Hughey made the decision to quit her other jobs and devote herself to Dream Katchers full time. Yet soon after she left the Girl Scouts, a contract she had been counting on fell through. Aside from retirement savings and a condo she’d just closed on, her total assets were no more than a credit card with zero percent APR and a $10,000 limit.
“We’re talking day by day,” Hughey says. “I remember having twenty-five cents left in my checking account. Even though I was a starving artist — or maybe a starving entrepreneur — I had to work on my passion.”
She worked as many jobs as she could, switching between private tutoring, consulting with Essence magazine, campaigning for Barack Obama, and recruiting for The New Teacher Project. Her faith never wavered, but she realized she couldn’t run her company by herself. She needed a change of pace, and her recruiting potential had reached its limit. How could she find the best teachers if she had never been in charge of a classroom?
She applied to Teach for America and was sent to the Mississippi Delta.
* * *
The state of Mississippi is vastly different from what many outsiders expect it to be, even while it simultaneously fulfills many of their stereotypes
Mississippi is green, dark green with the needles of pines and the leaves of cottonwoods and the snarls of kudzu, so green that sixty-five percent of its land is covered with trees. Why is it that Mississippi is far better known for its fried food, warm hospitality and a color that’s not green? Two colors, to be precise — ones that often go together but rarely coexist: black and white.
It was here, in the Delta town of Money, that fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered, just eleven miles away from Greenwood, where Hughey taught Algebra I for three years. Leflore County, where Greenwood is located, is about twenty-six percent white and seventy-two percent black, according to American Community Survey estimates. Yet in the 2011 – 2012 school year, less than one percent of the students in Greenwood’s local public high school were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During that same time period, just three percent of the students at Pillow Academy, a private high school a few miles down the road, were black.
The contrasts were stark, and the stigmas of poverty seemed impenetrable. Though Hughey was a Southern girl at heart, she wasn’t prepared for the walls her students had built up to protect themselves.
Chiqueta Daniels, the assistant principal at Greenwood High School when Hughey arrived in the Delta, saw that she wasn’t adjusting well.
“She had really strong attributes,” Daniels says, “but she looked so young that the children couldn’t differentiate the way she looked with what she was trying to do.”
“You have to go strong,” Daniels told Hughey. “You can’t smile until Christmas.”
Hughey developed a tougher skin, but she also decided to use the children’s strengths to her — and their — advantage.
She created separate classes based on learning style, with one class made up of students who liked to talk out problems together, and another made of those who preferred to work quietly and independently.
Her obsessive passion infiltrated her workplace, as she began using her planning periods and lunch times for college preparation. She coached the track team and tutored athletes before practice, sometimes in the football bleachers and on the cross country field. Her data-driven mind inspired her to create spreadsheets about her students, methodically tracking their progress.
Daniels says her favorite memory of Hughey was when the school received the scores from the first statewide tests their students took.
“She was so proud,” Daniels recalls, smiling. “She had worked so hard and she saw the fruits of her labor. She knew, ‘I did it and I did it right.’”
When the state of Mississippi named Hughey one of the four finalists for Teacher of the Year, the superintendent immediately called an impromptu assembly, eager to celebrate such an accomplishment. Hughey received a year’s worth of Blue Bell ice cream in her favorite flavor — Krazy Kookie Dough. Though Hughey loves ice cream, an even bigger highlight of her tenure as Mississippi Teacher of the Year was the awards ceremony in D.C.
When she was first introduced to President Obama, he said, “You teach high schoolers?”
“Yes,” she responded.
“You look like a high schooler,” he told her.
Hughey also met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a year later was selected by his office to join a panel of educators to speak with him about recruiting teachers for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Corps.
A banner hanging in a hallway of Greenwood High School reads, “The road to success is always under construction. Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” Hughey’s former students have that motivation now, and many are headed on to college.
When asked if she liked Hughey better than her other teachers, Tonea Stewart, one of Hughey’s former students, scoffed as if there was no comparison.
“She’s patient,” Stewart said simply. “She cares what happens to us.”
* * *
When a mentor told Hughey that if she wanted to have long-term impact in the education field, she needed experience in both a rural and urban setting, Hughey took the advice seriously. After thought and prayer, she accepted an opportunity to join a principal training program in Baltimore, believng that was the direction in which God was leading her.
Her new battleground was Benjamin Franklin High School, a former middle school with low test scores and attendance, that had recently been repurposed as a high school. The small brick building is nestled in the middle of the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay neighborhood, serving a racially diverse and mostly low-income population.
New administrators and mostly new staff had come in the previous year to infuse life into the ailing school. They’d had moderate success with the turnaround at that point — but also enough experience in the setting that they knew what was possible and what was not.
Hughey wasn’t accustomed to the concept of impossible tasks. When she came to the school — through “divine intervention,” says principal Chris Battaglia — she had grand visions for its students, as usual.
“She kept me balanced in that she is so positive all the time,” Battaglia says. “If you ever strayed — because we all have weak moments — she was always there to continue to bring you back. Sometimes it was delusional in some ways.”
“’Every kid is going to come to school every single day,’” assistant principal Simon Birenbaum cuts in, mimicking Hughey. “’Every kid is going to become a doctor, and they’re all going to have 100 percent attendance and take five AP classes.’”
Hughey was charged with a variety of tasks, including professional development for math teachers, building a literacy team and student discipline. She approached all of her tasks methodically. She always wore simple black clothing to work, and had a schedule planned down to the minute for the first week. Halfway through Monday, Birenbaum saw her looking panicked and teased, “How’s that schedule looking?”
She glared at him and kept going.
Though Hughey had dealt with instability in Greenwood, she found a strategy that worked for her students, allowing her to maintain her black-and-white way of operating. Here in Baltimore, with more responsibility given to her, she finally ran up against a foe she couldn’t defeat: chaos.
While other faculty members were sadly used to some students failing, Hughey was unwilling to accept even one student falling short.
“She would be the person doing CPR even after the doctor pronounced death,” Battaglia says. “If Birdie were in the emergency room, she would never stop using the paddles.”
He appreciated all the effort Hughey put into her job, but worried she wouldn’t be happy if she became a principal, that the position might make her jaded. Eventually, she too came to realize that success can’t always be 100 percent.
“You have to be comfortable with uncertainty,” Hughey says. “You have to be comfortable sitting in a grey area because so much of school administration is a grey area.”
Battaglia was happy however, when he heard she’d branched out in clothing choices, and no longer wears only black.
“I expanded her color wheel,” he said happily.
* * *
Hughey knew she needed to get back to Mississippi. Though she’d enjoyed Baltimore, she felt herself being called back to the state where she was able to make such a difference. She was hired to help create the curriculum for Teach for America’s regional summer institute, and moved back to Ridgeland, about twelve miles from Greenwood.
On a nippy, twenty-eight-degree day this January, Hughey visited the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Downtown Jackson, where the major draw is an outdoor replica of small-town Mississippi as it would have looked in the 1920s.
As a devout Christian, Hughey was excited to see a small white church at the exhibit. “Ooooh, can we go in?” she asked, winding her way around the building until she found an entrance.
A partition blocked the way into the sanctuary, but the whole room, complete with pews, a piano and a stained glass window, was visible. Hughey stared at the pews.
“You see how straight and parallel and structured they are?” she said. “It sends a very black-and-white image of Christianity. Like you have to be a pristine, astute 100% perfect person to be a Christian. Now, churches are so much more fluid; they use chairs instead of pews sometimes.”
She let herself look a little longer and then turned away. As she walked around the outdoor museum, Hughey talked about the plan that gets her most excited: the youth ministry for girls she is currently developing. She hopes to have a preliminary program in place by fall, to coincide with the start of a new school year, although she also wants to take the time to make sure she gets it right.
She plans for the program to focus on the mental, physical and spiritual health of young women. While she’s still conservative on issues such as sex before marriage, Hughey wants to welcome girls who may have different viewpoints or even those who are not Christians. She says she was judgmental when she was younger because she was so rigid in terms of her interpretation of the Bible. As she got older, she started to learn more about people’s different perceptions of their faith and the world and realized she needed to be more open-minded.
Hughey believes this is the key to progress in Mississippi, which she is certain is moving toward a brighter future. “There’s a lot of value in the state that people miss out on because of their assumptions, mostly about race relations,” says Hughey, who sees many things changing here, and asserts that “Part of that shift is coming from a newer generation of people working to get past things that happened in the past.”
Hughey has coined a name for her network of havens but asked not to disclose it since it’s not trademarked yet. Eventually, she would like to establish different centers for different age groups.
“I’ve seen girls do phenomenal things with their lives,” she says. “When you’re in a classroom as a teacher, when you see a young lady who at the beginning of the year may have been a tougher young lady and by the end of the year has just grown into their own, that’s when you know every girl is special. Every girl has passion. Every girl has a purpose.
“When you see girls transforming in front of you, when you’re watching it every day, it makes it easy to believe.”
Hughey is also putting effort into her own self-preservation. Though she’s still a workaholic, she tries to participate in fewer groups and focus on the activities that will build her up as a person — enrolling in a series of classes called Financial Peace University that will help her to better manage her money; buying a Dutch oven to make sure she cooks rather than going out to eat every night.
“I feel like I’m at the end of my search for self,” she says. “I really know what I want to do, and I can just grow in it. I can stop running. When you don’t know what you want to do, it’s easy to keep running. You don’t have anything to fight for.”
In the mill section of the museum, she marveled at the cotton gin and the intimate history it conjured up. Then she saw the small red schoolhouse. Peering inside, Hughey glanced at the rows of uncomfortable-looking desks and wondered if the wide bench at the front of the room was where the teacher perched or where the students “sat dunce.” Her gaze floated upward, where a painting of slaves working in the fields hung on the wall.
“Wow,” she said. “I wonder if that would have actually been in here.”
She turned and realized that a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung on the opposite wall, staring at the slaves as if his gaze alone were powerful enough to liberate them from their bonds.
Her dark eyes sparkled as she looked from one to the other, black to white, coexisting rather than lying on opposite ends of the spectrum. Making gray. Making way for color.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s actually really thoughtful. I get it now.”
* * *
Mary Clare Fischer is a senior journalism and government and politics major at the University of Maryland. She is @mc_fischer on Twitter.