I grew up in rural Kentucky in a place called Falls of Rough that sounds right out of a Charles Dickens novel, a place where we often hunted for our supper and had outhouses in our backyards.
But I would not trade the sense of community I grew up with for anything. It was place where you always knew you could count on your neighbor: if someone was sick, if you needed to pick the crops before it rained, or if the shed fell down and you needed to build a new one. I couldn’t go anywhere in the community where I was not known and looked after. It was a place where piles of autumn leaves, gurgling creeks and big harvest moons just called to children. Those are magical memories.
But it also was a place low on expectations, and not much was expected of me. I worked hard at home, and I worked relatively hard in school, graduating near the top of my class. But no one at home or in school expected me to do much with my life. So it was a blow to my family and, in a curious way, a betrayal when I decided to go to college.
I was a junior in high school when I became friends with a young woman from the affluent end of the county. She wasn’t willing to accept that the gaps between where we grew up would determine where we ended up. She saw my potential and my love for learning, convinced me to take the college entrance exams and made sure I filled out the scholarship forms. “You’re as smart as I am,” she said. “We’re going to figure this out.”
It wasn’t until I was accepted into Western Kentucky University that I finally told my parents I was planning to go to college. It was only 90 miles from home, but it might as well have been 9,000. None of us had a frame of reference for college. My stepfather, who raised me and whom I considered my dad, was dead set against it. I left home with him not speaking to me and my mom in tears.
It was the first time I had to weigh my unquenchable drive against the genuine fears and concerns of others. I made a life-altering choice. I had to acknowledge the voice inside me that said, “You are not too poor to succeed. People shouldn’t expect less of you than they do of kids in the upper end of the county or across the state.”
And then two important things happened. One, my stepfather was an incredibly generous man –– so it wasn’t long until he reached out and brought me back into the fold. And two, I learned the power of high expectations. From the college professors who challenged me, to the first principal I taught for, to the two school boards for which I served as Superintendent, to the Governor for whom I served as Secretary of Education, to Bill and Melinda Gates, for whom I work now, many doors opened for me. Now, much is expected of me. I experienced firsthand the difference between low and high expectations.
Some people find stories like mine inspirational. I find them sad. This is a land of opportunity, and no child in this country should lack for a quality education.
Today, my work at the Gates Foundation is fueled by a passion born from my experience – the passion that drives me to lean in to our work to take luck, background, and income out of the equation for student success. All our children deserve to follow their dreams and passions, to set and meet high expectations, and to travel where their spirits lead them. Not by luck, but by design.