It’s My Mama’s Birthday and I Want to Shout Her Out for Showing Me What an Educator Looks Like

Dear Mama,

I hope all is well. I wanted to send you a note of thanks. As a child, I always appreciated and benefited from your tremendous and incessant love, support, and advocacy, even though (like many youth), I didn’t always show it.

A key area that your love manifested itself was through the care, attention, and advocacy you placed in selecting schools that you considered willing and competent partners. You were determined that your efforts to raise your five children would not be compromised by the schools we attended. I now recognize that your thoughtfulness in choosing the schools that would educate and shape us was similar to the deliberation millions of Black families undertake to choose the school that will partner with them to set their children up for success.

You investigated and chose schools that ranged from a Freedom School, homeschool, private Islamic school, magnet schools, and our traditional neighborhood school. You found different choices fitting for different children, but the one constant was your belief in us and the vital importance and value of a strong educational foundation. You wanted to ensure we received a holistic education that did not undermine the work you were doing to build strong Black children who knew their own worth and the worth of the community.

Another constant memory I have was how you pushed us to stand for others, to pursue justice and equity for our community. Our “schooling” was pervasive and persistent. You took us to your community organizing meetings, and swim and martial arts lessons. We attended protests and read tons of books. We traveled to the Carolinas and the Caspian sea. We camped and wrote letters. We learned how to honor our freedom fighter forefathers and mentor those younger than us.

You taught your children the difference between real activism and acting big and just acting, between spewing opinions and being held accountable for outcomes, between workers and pretenders. With your constant and deliberate modeling and the models you surrounded us with, I am able to see who the workers are on behalf of our youth and who just likes to preach. You helped us to recognize that agitating people and agitating for change are not the same. We know with certainty that we stand on the shoulders of our elders, we trek down the path of those who came before us, and we are responsible for paving new ways and smoothing the paths for those who will follow us. Through my upbringing I realize we aren’t apples that fall by our trees, we stand and fight from our trees’ tallest branches.

Today, I carry your lessons in my work and life. Growing up the son of an educator, made me deeply appreciate the constant work of parents and teachers, activists and scholars, students and leaders. Although I did not see myself becoming a teacher and your many free tote bags full of students’ papers did not particularly inspire me to join your ranks, your efforts to empower, liberate, and educate, certainly did. I pray that I have a fraction of the impact that you had on us.

Happy 70th birthday, Mama.



Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Aisha El Mekki is and will always be one of my sheroes. A true warrior Queen, educator and freedom fighter who exemplifies the best of who we are. Thank you for disrupting the dominant view on what Black and Muslim and woman needed to look like. Thank you for providing an example of parenting that was rooted in both culture and spirit. Your children are a reflection of your awesomeness! Much love and respect forever.


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