Dr. Eric Motley worked as a special assistant to President George W. Bush. He was director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office. He served as executive vice president at the Aspen Institute. In 2017, Dr. Motley published Madison Park, A Place of Hope, adding author to his resume. Most recently, he joined the National Gallery of Art as deputy director. In an interview with NHSA, Dr. Motley attributed the courage to be curious to his experience at Head Start.

NHSA: When and where did you attend Head Start?

Dr. Motley: I attended Madison Park Head Start in Montgomery, Alabama, in a little African American community called Madison Park. Madison Park might not easily be found on a GPS system, but it is there, like so many other small towns that are home to people all across the country. Madison Park is in the city limits of Montgomery, but barely. It is an African American community that was founded in 1880 by a group of freed slaves, and my grandfather’s grandfather was one of those founders. It is my legacy. It remains the place that I call home.

NHSA: Is there anything you remember from your time at Head Start?

Dr. Motley: I remember all the kids at the Head Start program were the kids that I grew up with in the community. There were kids who lived across the street, there were kids that I went to church with, so they were all familiar. I remember the bus driver who would pick us up. I remember the school principal Mrs. Shirley Peevey, who was a very rotund, Rubenesque-framed woman who was very demanding and always serious. I remember that she had a wide smile with a tooth missing. I remember two teachers that I had: one was Mrs. Womack and the other was Mrs. Lee.

And Mrs. Womack and Mrs. Lee were two of the kindest and most thoughtful and nurturing of women. I think they knew they were transporting precious cargo to some great destination, and so they cared for us with such love and tenderness and concern.

I remember them being ever-present and teaching us our alphabet. I remember playtime, nap time, and I remember our break time where they would bring out celery sticks, carrots, and apple slices. I think it was my first discovery that I did not like celery. And I realized then that it was probably some of the only juice or fruit that some of these kids ever got. But what I most fondly remember is reading time - hearing the stories and all of the characters coming alive right before our very eyes.



NHSA: Dr. Motley, how do you think your early learning experience may have impacted your preparedness for school or your experiences beyond?

Dr. Motley: Another quality that my teachers possessed was patience. They were remarkably patient because I was very precocious, and I always had a lot of questions to ask, always. They never hushed me. They encouraged my inquisitiveness, and always sought to address all the questions that I had.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a really curious person. I always have a lot of questions and a lot of thoughts about things. Even then, I was unafraid to inquire, to reflect, and to share my thoughts. A large portion of that courage was inspired by those teachers that I interacted with in Head Start.

In the Head Start program, I found a community of my peers, where we learned civility, courtesy, kindness, and sharing. I learned to share and to compromise; to accommodate and to push back; and to be sensitive and kind to others in the daily exercise of dealing with other people.

I went on to university, and then I went on to Scotland, where I received a masters degree and a PhD. Those early foundation stones were laid by Head Start, and to a very large degree, propelled me for a lifelong pursuit of reflection, learning, asking questions, and engaging with others.

NHSA: Is there any advice you have for current Head Start children and families or any other wisdom you have to impart?

Dr. Motley: Head Start is rightly called Head Start inasmuch as it is about the head - the cultivation of the mind - but it is also about giving kids who might not have access or means to get a Head Start, to get a little extra push. So that they, like others who may have the means for other educational alternatives, can compete.

I do think it is critical that parents demonstrate their concern and interest as their kids are going through Head Start. That they be present and that they become a part of that learning experience with their children. It is a reminder to both students and parents of the importance of learning. The students, like I do, will forever recognize the importance of the early investment made in them.

The last thing I would say is to teachers: should you lose hope and faith, remember that you never know how the seed that you are planting is going to grow and develop. Most teachers will never have the opportunity of seeing the materialization and the maturity of their students over the course of an extended period of time. And sometimes it takes many years for an idea or a lesson to really materialize in a person’s mind and heart, so don’t lose hope. You’re in it for the long game, realizing that the investment you are making will one day make great returns.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, A Man for All Seasons, captures a moment when a young, ambitious man wonders, “What should I do with my life?” The admirable Sir Thomas More replies, “You are smart, thoughtful, and caring - you should become a teacher.” The young man refutes the suggestion by asking, “But who would know?” Only to have Sir Thomas respond, “Who would know? The children you teach would know; their children would know; God would know. Not a bad audience!” And such is the influence of a teacher upon generations.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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