Gross Theater went silent at the beginning of the assembly on Tuesday morning as Dr. Rodney Glasgow stood by the side of the podium and slowly took off his shoes and socks. Glasgow explained to the theater that after being expected to die from pneumonia as a premature baby, each new day of life and the ground he stands on should be counted as a blessing. With that humbling gesture, Glasgow kicked off the school’s annual Unity Week assembly.
Glasgow is one of the founding members and Chair of the National Association of Independent School’s annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). In 2014, Glasow launched the National Diversity Practitioners Institute (NDPI), a training ground for school leaders run by his consortium of consultants known as The Glasgow Group.
Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Mr. John Gentile invited Glasgow to the school after students who attended the SDLC suggested that he come to campus, Gentile said.
Gentile has known Glasgow since high school, he said. “When I went to SDLC as a student, he first met me in 2005, and now I have been on the SDLC faculty for the past eleven years,” Gentile said.
Jessica Thomas (12) who attended the SDLC conference this year had heard Glasgow speak. “I remember he spoke about oppression and the cycle which he explains and breaks down in a way that is accessible to everyone and easy to understand. He also invited students to the stage to talk about what they love about themselves. It was so inspiring for me to see all of these people talk about self love which I feel like we don’t do often enough.”
Glasgow’s vivid narrative at the assembly focused around a central theme of questions, in tandem with the theme of this year’s Unity Week, Living in Our Questions: Expanding Awareness and Assuming Complexity. Glasgow’s storytelling focused on his journey to answer some of his questions about his identity and his role in the world as an African American gay man born to teenage parents on the “wrong” side of Baltimore.
Glasgow’s sense of humor and regret were not lost on the crowd, and on multiple occasions, the audience reacted in either explosive laughter or solemn silence to his words.
“I was hoping that Dr. Glasgow would be able to connect with the student body and stimulate conversations,” Charles Simmons (12), who attended the SDLC conference, said. Glasgow’s stories were presented as a journey of finding himself and each of them focused on specific events of his life.
Glasgow began by talking about his origins. Born three months premature to a mother in high school and a father in his first year of college, there were questions surrounding whether or not he would live, and after suffering from pneumonia, even the doctors were sure he would die. But according to Glasglow, his mother told the doctor “I didn’t sort through all these questions about whether or not to have this child just to lose him.” Against the odds, Glasgow survived. His next story took the audience to his fifth grade classroom.
As a fifth grader, Glasgow already knew he was destined for greatness, he said. Glasow was head of the safety patrol and was the president of his school, meaning he “was both the president and the speaker of the house, so if something happened to me, the person in charge would still be me.” In his subsequent story,he discussed the arrival of a new, white girl into his predominantly African American class and how his fifth grade self chose to handle a newcomer he felt his status threatened by.
Glasgow went on to describe his time working as a teacher at schools where he would be a target of racism and homophobia. At one school, serious threats to his life made it necessary for him to be escorted by the police to enter the work each day. Glasgow ended the assembly with a quote from the school’s namesake, Horace Mann. “‘Be ashamed to die unless you’ve won some victory for humanity,’ Mann said. I’m not ashamed to die,” Glaow said.
As a fellow educator, Glasgow agrees with many of Mann’s ideas about education. “We must understand and agree like Horace Mann did that schools teach more than reading or math,” Glasgow said “Schools transform, education transforms. Schools are the first place where you learn who you are and what you can do in the world.”
Glasgow’s assembly managed to discuss serious events of his past in ways that resonated with many students. By the end of his presentation, ten minutes into the following period, the entire auditorium rose to give him a standing ovation.
“The experiences and existence of the members of the HM community who identify as PoC, LGBT+, and/or students who do not come from generational wealth were strongly acknowledged and affirmed with having Dr. Glasgow share his story with us,” science teacher Dr. Rachel Mohammed said.
“When I grew up, black men were not surviving to see this thing called adulthood,” Glasgow said. “I’m here for the revolution, I’m here for the change. I’m here for the look on your face when you hear Harvard, Columbia, GW, head of school. I’m here for the look on your face when you see me.”
“What made Dr. Glasgow’s presentation so powerful was that it was all real. I think the fact that he speaks about his own personal experiences and is just so unapologetically himself really resonates with the audience,” Thomas said. “It makes his performance so much more meaningful to know that it comes from his heart and who he is.”
Through NDPI, math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis was able to meet Glasgow prior to the assembly, at a three day intensive professional development program for teachers and administrators, Kafoglis said.
“At this program, he consistently did a good job of integrating his personal experiences and his life story and what we can learn from that in the context of making better schools and communities,” Kafoglis said.
“Even though there were some moments of discomfort, he delivered from a place of knowledge and truth for his own experience,” Gentile said. “It was really overwhelming how there was such a big standing ovation at the end, and I think it spoke to people’s reception of the assembly.”
Similar to the intensive development program, at the assembly “he did a great job of illustrating that even though it was his personal experience, it also became a story about a larger system,” Kafoglis said.
“We don’t often have speakers who talk about the black experience and black culture,” Thomas said. “It just meant a lot to me to see my experiences represented on stage in front of the whole school.”