Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we get a firsthand view into just how impactful quality preschool education can be for a young child. In this powerful conversation with Liz Huntley we hear about Liz’s childhood, being raised by her grandmother after father’s incarceration and her mother’s suicide. Ultimately the affection, stimulation and support she received through a preschool program saved her life and set her on a path to become a truly inspirational advocate for high-quality pre-K, as well as a successful litigation attorney at Lightfoot, Franklin & White in Birmingham, Alabama. She has also since recounted her childhood in her memoir, More Than A Bird.
If you’re looking for inspiration on how you can lead an impactful career as an early-childhood educator through a powerfully emotional journey then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Liz, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. It’s so great to have you as a guest.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that story?
Sure. Both my parents were drug dealers and we lived in a housing project in an urban area in Alabama called Huntsville. They weren’t married but my mother had five children. We all lived there and we had four different fathers. She’d given birth to us from age 16 to 21. By all purposes it was a very dysfunctional situation. What’s interesting about that is, clearly, a kid doesn’t realize that they’re in dysfunction because it’s their home and their mom and dad are there. So they don’t get it, and I didn’t. But when I was five my mother ended up committing suicide after my dad went to prison for dealing drugs. She packed us all up and took me and my younger sister down to a little rural community called Clanton, Alabama, to live with our paternal grandmother. And while I was there in dealing with the mother committing suicide the dad in jail, I was also a sexually abused child when I went to that home. I was literally withdrawn. I see it, every bit of the stereotypes that you hear of children that experience severe traumatic events and now what we know in science about what it does to their neurology.
But we also know in science that if you put a child in a nurturing environment for any period of time in spite of the fact that they may continue to experience these traumatic events like I was experiencing then that child can end up becoming very resilient and learn. And that’s exactly what happened to me. My grandmother sent me to this local preschool program where they had licensed teachers. It was high quality early childhood education. And in that program I thrived. What was interesting about that was, as a child, I was really just responding to the love I received from the teachers, the nurturing, the way they got excited about how I learned. In many ways they were giving me what I wasn’t getting at home. After all, we know children learn from adults. They learn in how people respond to what they do, how they determine what the good behaviour, not good behaviour. And I was no exception.
Fortunately for me I was in this wonderful preschool where I learned a lot of good behaviours. And also my potential was tapped into and [I] learned that I was actually a very bright child. In fact I was doing smart stuff for these teachers because they loved on me, it was a quid pro quo. I ended up doing so much smart stuff that I became valedictorian kindergarten class, and I wasn’t even trying to be valedictorian of my kindergarten class. I was literally just responding to this stimulating, nurturing environment. And so what ended up happening is that laid a foundation for me for the rest of my life. It made me love school. It made it become the refuge place, the place where I could thrive. And that education became key to me breaking the cycle of poverty in my family.
Can you remember any specifics about your time in that a preschool program? You were so young but can you remember any specific experience?
I remember lots of experience. But the one that’s most impactful to me was the first day. Because as it is I describe myself – here I was, this child being sexually abused, mother committed suicide, dad in jail. My grandmother was very poor. She cleaned houses for a living. I had gone from having all this stuff with drug-dealing parents, because, contrary to popular demand, drug dealers have a lot of cash, so you get a lot of stuff. To go into the situation with my grandmother where it was crowded in the home because she had other adult children living there. We were in the housing projects. We had dirt for lawns and cinderblock walls that we slept in and lived in. It was a really tough situation. As I described, what I now know through science that neurological impact on me: I became withdrawn, and I hung my head. I didn’t look up when I spoke to people. I mumbled when I talked. Just this really introverted, gone-into-a-shell type child.
And so when my grandmother sent me down to the school I had no idea how people were going to respond to me. I was embarrassed about my situation. And although I had not told anyone about the sexual abuse – because my perpetrator threatened me if I did – I still felt like people knew. I felt dirty, like a used rag doll. I remember going down to this school because my grandmother told me I had to go. And it was free; we certainly would have been able to afford high-quality pre-K, which is why I’m such an advocate for making sure it’s accessible to all children, because I understand what a game-changer it is. So this program was free, provided through a local community action grant.
I walked into the building, this dejected child, head hung. And I remember looking up and looking around the room. And I almost smiled because I looked around this room and it was so beautiful. It was so bright and colourful. Nothing like anything I was experiencing on the daily basis. It literally screamed, “Stimulation! Come here and learn with me!” And I remember thinking to myself, “This is for us?” If think about where you live in your neighbourhood and then you walk into this beautiful space that is so catering to little kids… it had little bitty desks that were just my height, little baby workstations. It was just perfect. And I remember kind of smiling.
But when those preschool teachers came up to me, and they said, “Come on in here, baby,” and they put their arms around me and hugged me and they got down on their knees and they were looking in my eyes and calling me by my name and being so engaged with me for the first time in my little fragile life, at that moment I actually feel relevant. I felt relevant, I felt like someone cared. Someone cared how I felt, how I thought, what I thought, that someone was excited when I learned new things. And I rose to the challenges that were put in front of me. And I tell you, as a kid that was starving for that, that was a game-changer for my life. It really was that first day. I’ll never forget it. Just feeling, like, “This is a safe, good place for me.” It was pretty powerful.
Do you suspect that the teachers there knew anything about your background and treated you differently? Or do you think that they treated every child like that and you just had that experience?
I think they treated every child like that, because I witnessed it. To this day we all, that grew up in that neighbourhood and went to that preschool, still adore [it]. There’s a couple of them [teachers] that are still alive and they’re some of the most adored people in our community. They just love children and had a natural passion for children. I think they were well-trained teachers and they clearly had great curriculum. I remember it being very structured.
High-quality pre-K is almost chaos with structure, because the environment in high quality is set up in such a way to stimulate learning through play and interaction. It’s not rigid, rote worksheets and memorization and reciting things. I think it takes a certain type of personality as an educator to be able to navigate those waters, to function in what I call organized chaos in pre-K classrooms. You have four-year-olds that are all over the place, doing their thing.
But at the same time they are learning. They’re learning to become critical thinkers and learning to apply the knowledge that they do know in very fun and engaging ways. It’s so powerful.
I suspect when you woke up every morning you were really looking forward to going to this environment…?
That’s an understatement. When you were in the hellhole that I was in, there was no sleeping or anybody having to wake me up, or, “You need to go to school”. No sir. I was ready to go. It was my place.
It’s great that you’ve stayed in touch with some of these teachers over time. And I’m sure the greatest reward of all for them is seeing yourself and hopefully others who have been able to thrive as a result of your experience in these programs.
It is. And you what was interesting when I ran into one of my preschool teachers at an event back in June. I speak all over the country with my story and my book. She finally knows the story behind Liz, what was going on with that little child that she had in her classroom. And when she saw me after she’d read the book she came up and she hugged me and cried. And she said, “Sweetheart, I didn’t know. How would I? You were always so bright-eyed and happy and engaging and learning. You were like a sponge. We could never give you enough.” And I looked at her and I said, “That was because I loved it.” I absolutely loved being in this environment where I could just be a kid and I could be stimulated in the way that they did. And she said, “There’s just no way anyone on the outside looking in our classroom could have known that you were a child going home to the terrible things that you were having to endure and experience.” And she told me, “I regret that I didn’t know. I would have done something.”
I think that just speaks a little bit to my earlier question of [them treating] everyone the same and with equal diligence in terms of providing you with a stimulating environment to thrive. So kudos to those educators for what they did. That’s phenomenal. And I think if this is a story of inspiration to say, “What you do as an early childhood educator can have a massive impact on the children you work with,” then this is one. Think about how many others there must be, right?
Here’s the other piece that I say. Sometimes when I start my presentation and I say this, they think, “That’s a little overreaching.” And I’ll say, “This literally saved my life. This experience going to this preschool saved my life.”
And then I connect the dots of the science. The way that I was you know outwardly expressing myself, physically and emotionally in response to the traumatic events that I was suffering through, I was on that path to where the neurology was going to take over and the information was not going to get through to the frontal cortex. Without having a full science lesson, we know this in neurology now, that that’s what happens to kids that go through traumatic events. And the only thing that can buffer and offset that and reverse those effects is a nurturing environment. That’s it. There’s no pill, there’s no magical therapy session. It’s a nurturing environment and it’s been proven in science. Preschools are not just places of learning and development. They’re places of healing for so many children.
It’s crazy, the scale of the impact of that nurturing environment.
It’s amazing. And so I tell people, “It literally saved my life.” Let’s take that out of my life before I went to public school and regular school, and I didn’t have that foundation to be school-ready. I would have walked into my school building a different child. And what it let me do when I walked to my school building is even more amazing. Because when I got up the morning to go to public school – and we were still going through the integration in my community at the time, so everybody was a little nervous about going. Here I am, six years old, going to first grade. And my grandmother looked at me and she said, “Elizabeth, I want you to go over to that school and I want you to tell the teacher to put an X everywhere I need to sign on the paperwork. Send it back home and I’ll send it back tomorrow.”
So it dawned on me: my grandma is about to see me to this school by myself, and I’m six years old. But I’m terrified of my grandma – I don’t dare say “No” or “No ma’am”. So I get on the bus and I go over to the school, just scared to death. I get off the bus and I walk into the school and I walk into the correct side of the building where the first-grade module was. And I looked on the wall and I saw it said, “first grade”. And I thought to myself, “I’m going to first grade, I must be in the right place.” Well, how did I know it’s said first grade? Because of that preschool. That had taught me that.
So I stood there a little longer and I saw parents come in with their children. And they would scroll down the little list of the classroom assignments. They would say, “Oh, little Susie, you’re in such-and-such room.” So they’d go off into the module where they were supposed to go. And I observed that and I thought to myself, “Well, my name’s got to be up there I’m going to first grade.” So I got on my little tippy toes and I scrolled down the list until I found my name.
And I saw my name and what room number I was supposed to go into. Well how did I know how to read, write and spell my name? How did I know how to navigate from room to room and understand room numbers? Because of that preschool.
So I go into the room that I’m supposed to sit in. And I sit in the front desk because the ladies at the preschool told me, “Nothing good happens in the back of class room. When you get to school you better sit in the front desk.” So imagine, if I can take you there: Here I am sitting, this little kid with pigtails from the projects sitting in this front desk, not saying a word, kind of waiting on class to start because I don’t know what to do to register myself for the first day of school. The teacher’s in there and little Johnny’s at the door holding on to mama’s skirt not wanting to go in. Because at this time we didn’t have kindergarten in public schools. It was all everybody’s first day. White, black, rich, poor – it was first grade. It was the chaos of the first day of school for all children. And you know that environment – you’re going have some kids that are school-ready and some that aren’t.
And so I’m sitting there and eventually the teacher notices me, and she started to walk towards me. Now I have to tell you, my heart started racing because this woman this teacher looked just like Wonder Woman, like Linda Carter, which was my dream to meet her someday. Every kid kind of needs a superhero, especially a victimized kid. And during that time – this was the mid-seventies, and it was when the Wonder Woman show was on TV. I watched it religiously every week. I had visions in my mind of Wonder Woman coming with the gold cuffs and the rope around her waist and saving me from the bad people. And so when my teacher looked like Wonder Woman I thought in my little mind, “Could this be? Is my teacher Wonder Woman?”
Well, it wasn’t Wonder Woman. It was Ms. Pam Jones. But she was my Wonder Woman, because early childhood to me goes through second grade. I mean that’s seven, eight years old, that critical development time from birth to six, seven years old.
And she looked at me and said, “Well hello young lady. What is your name?” Of course I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. And I had rehearsed everything my grandmother said. All I could say when she asked me was, “My name is Elizabeth Humphrey and my grandma told me to tell you to ‘Put the X everywhere I need to sign on the paperwork, send it back home and I’ll send it back tomorrow’.” I just spit it out. And she paused and she looked at me, and we had a little exchange about how I’d found my way into the room. I explained seeing first grade on the wall and finding my name on the classroom assignment list and everything.
Now you know that a lot of things could have happened in that moment, a lot of things that would have changed the course of time. She could have seen my glass as half empty, looking at my family’s situation. Here I am, this six year old kid at school by myself. But because of that preschool bringing out my potential she saw my glass as half full. See saw a kid that was bright, that was clearly resilient, that had navigated her way being put on a bus at six years old to find her way into her classroom, by all accounts acting way better than the kids that were there with mommies and daddies with them in tow. And she was so impressed by that and taken by that moment that this lady with tears in her eyes looked down in my face and said to me, “Elizabeth Humphrey, you’re going to be the brightest student I ever have.”
That’s how powerful that preschool was, because… let’s take it away and send me to school. That first day of school, not being school-ready the way that I was because of that preschool. I’m telling you it changed my life.
The things about reading, comprehension and understanding, the problem solving pieces, but also it sounds like the confidence level was a huge factor as well which may not have been there without that pre-K experience.
And trust of educators. That’s another piece. I could have been very distrustful of this woman and not really sure. Because when she said what she said to me, in my little mind I was thinking to myself, “Oh, well, I think this is going to be like preschool. All I’ve got to do is smart stuff and she’ll love on me.” Because that’s how you process things as a child, like that. And that’s literally what I thought in this moment. She seemed just nice and engaging as the ladies I had experienced in preschool. And in my little processing way, “This is going to be the same way,” and it was. I did smart stuff and she loved on me. And I didn’t take it as laying a great educational foundation in my little mind at the time. I’m just I’m just a little kid trying to survive, and this is a happy place.
It’s a powerful story. It really takes home your first point of, “Why aren’t we all passionate about early childhood education?” And hearing your story is certainly something that can inspire you to become passionate.
Currently you’re also doing some work related to expanding high-quality pre-K in Alabama. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yes, It’s very exciting times in Alabama. We’re so proud that for the tenth year in a row by mere standards we’ve been ranked as number one in quality. We’re really proud of that. And a lot of it has to do with the leadership surrounding expanding high-quality pre-K in this state. I can’t say that I take credit for being on that initial team. I was a couple of years into them really working on this project when I was asked to join the business leadership team. I wanted to put together a task force to really work towards getting this high-quality pre-K expanded it to all of our four-year-olds in Alabama. What we’re doing is, we’ve got a business-led task force of leaders, people both in the education field and the political field, in the faith-based arena – that’s a big part of Alabama – and in the business field, that are all coming together to put forth a plan for Alabama financially to be able to support expanding high-quality pre-K access to all four-year-olds in Alabama.
Right now we have access to about 25 percent of our four-year-olds to what we know for sure is high quality as administered through our Alabama Department of Early Childhood Ed. And the delivery of those programs [is] just amazing. We have a diverse delivery system. People that apply for the grant for the high-quality pre-K, it can be private childcare; it can be faith-based; it can be in a school setting, or a community center setting. That’s been very beneficial to us because we’re able to bring the program to where the four-year-olds are, versus setting up some program where people are having to get to us. And it’s been extremely successful. The data and the results have been powerful. They speak for themselves. But we all know that. Wherever there is quality you’re going to get those results. There’s nothing unique to Alabama about that. That’s just that’s par for the course. We do it right, kids are going to learn. You’re going to see the results in third grade when they start testing.
And it’s just been very successful. We’ve got a lot of bipartisan leadership and buy-in from the legislature. We’re year-four into what we call our ten-year track for full expansion. It’s a voluntary program, so nobody is required to go. But, of course, most of those places have a waiting list of kids that want access to it because those parents see the results of it for the kids that do get to go.
So it’s a good thing that’s going on and Alabama and I’m happy to serve on the executive board for Alabama School Readiness Alliance, which is the grassroots organization that sort of runs this effort in the state. And also as one of the spokespersons for the program that goes around the state and promotes it with business leaders in communities and help them come up with their own creative local ways to try to jumpstart their own process for expanding quality access to their four-year-olds. Very exciting times.
Awesome. And what do you see as one of the most exciting things for the future of early-childhood education?
I think what I see most is the impact that I think it’s going to have on the quality of life for children. Because if you have high quality early, you can identify things early. Most of the high quality programs have screening programs. You can identify any kind of a true learning disability. Sometimes I think things that are characterized later in elementary school as learning disabilities really are developmental delays, because kids haven’t been exposed to certain things. By tapping into them early and letting them start to develop and learn early I think we can identify things sooner rather than later that might be going on with children. And then it becomes a game changer like it was for me, in terms of impacting their quality of life.
And I just think about the child that wouldn’t be exposed to reading, wouldn’t be exposed to any kind of academic learning unless maybe the parents set them in front of Sesame Street – which by the way is still a great tool, I use it for my children. Unless that happens, they don’t get that engagement and they’re not stimulated. And so you go to a school for the first time not school-ready and you’re sitting in a sea of children that are, you start to define yourself in a very poor light, when really there’s nothing wrong with you. You may be smarter than those other kids. Just nobody tapped into it early for you to display it the way that they can. To me the most exciting thing is the quality of life piece that is going to do for the children that get to go to school school-ready, that wouldn’t have had it otherwise.
Absolutely. Well, Liz, thanks so much for coming on the show. If I want to look you up online because I want to learn more about what you’re doing, where can I find it?
It’s just at LizHuntley.com. Very easy.
Awesome. Liz, thank you so much for sharing your story. And thanks so much for your continued contributions to accessible, high-quality pre-K in Alabama as well. I think it’s amazing work that you’re doing out there.
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
And last but not least, whether it’s in the classroom or the boardroom I really hope that some of our listeners are going to be inspired by your story to also make a difference in the lives of our young children, in particular those at risk. I know I’m inspired by this story and I’m going to work that much harder to make a difference for our young children everywhere. So thanks again, Liz.