Representation Matters:On the Loss of A Mentor

I remember the day I met Dr. Rose Wilder vividly. I was sitting in the State Superintendent’s Office for a meeting with her. We wanted to ask her if she would be interested in coming out of retirement and doing some work for us in places where we knew experience, wisdom, and help was needed. She had a poised demeanor, and a confident but comforting tone to her voice. She could hold a gaze and her smile made me smile too. As they chatted, I listened, and inserted myself in the conversation as invited. I recognized that she was the one we needed and I hoped she would say yes. I was thrilled when she agreed to serve as superintendent in one of the state’s take over districts.

Upon beginning our work there, I traveled to Williamsburg routinely to check in and on the progress of things we were working to rectify. It wasn’t long before I figured out I wasn’t the one doing the teaching. Instead, I was being educated by Dr. Rose H. Wilder. As the state superintendent’s liaison, I had responsibilities and tasks that I had to make sure were completed. Turns out Dr.Wilder didn’t need my help. She was wise, experienced, and had a heart for the work. She was led by the need to serve-not anything else. After a few months, I couldn’t soak up enough of her knowledge, her wisdom, her wit, or her leadership. Every time I was with her for a visit, I took notes-either mentally or physically, because I wanted to make sure I never forgot what she was teaching me.

To be clear, I’ve had other folks to invest in my growth and development-many of whom I have reported to and who evaluated me, but Dr. Wilder was different. When she told me she believed in me and my abilities, I believed her. When I looked at her and listened to her, I saw that I could do what she said I could do. I saw someone who looked like me, had battled the things that make my heart the heaviest, and she was victorious. She understood me. She didn’t need to be convinced that what I faced was my reality, and she had experiences that I could connect to and learn from.

I found myself routinely in awe of her. I remember visiting one time and as we chatted, I learned we were members of the same sorority (Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.). At some point in my asking her as many questions as I could fit in a single visit, she shared with me that she was the first African-American female superintendent in South Carolina, named in 1994, and the only one for seven years thereafter. I remember asking her how she felt about that and how she survived what had to come with that, and her responses will forever be something I treasure. She made it clear. The work we do is for children-not adults. Keep the students in focus and you will be able to do what needs to be done.

Each time I visited, we would share a meal. It was a standard part of our time together. In between the work, we ate, and I shared stories of my Momma and her rearing, my family, and my battles. She shared stories of her daughter, her grandson, and husband. She was proud of her family and I was proud of mine. We talked about being natural, our hair care, and how much she loved her sister locs. In her I could see what’s possible, and I knew I always had someone to call for guidance, direction, encouragement, support, and correction-without judgement. She never hesitated to set me straight if it was needed, but I always knew it was from a place of love, and I listened to her because of that.

Dr. Wilder transitioned to heaven on Tuesday morning. I sat quietly in my office and wept. I thought about how much I would miss her, how blessed I was to have had the opportunity to know her, and how very much I loved her and hoped she knew it. I told her often-over phone, email, and text, but there would be no more of those. Her race has been run, and very well so. Her legacy will remain in the many lives she touched, mine included, and I hope I will do her proud.

I was texting with my Momma once I learned of her death, and my mothers’s message gave me the comfort I needed. I share a portion of it here for your reading: “So sorry to hear that. God saw fit for her be in your life for a season. I know she did everything that God wanted her to do for you. You can take it from here. She gave you the foundation to get your start. She will be looking down on you and feeling very proud.” I can remember her always telling me that she would tell others to give her their hearts when they seemed to lose focus, get stuck in a rut of complaining , or get lost in the real reason we do what we do.

Dr. Wilder-My heart is yours. I promise to make you proud. Rest well and in eternal peace.

I absolutely love you.

Latoya

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