"My grandmother used to tell me, ‘love your teachers or I’ll beat you to death,’ so I loved my teachers!"
Fifth grade students at Livingston Elementary School had the opportunity to learn from living history makers Thursday when members of the Tuskegee Airmen visited the school to speak.
W.O. Smith, Master Sergeant and Donald E. Summerland, Chief Master Sergeant (retired) for the United States Army Air Forcees (self-proclaimed "Top Dog"), spoke to the students about not only being Tuskegee Airmen, but also about what it takes to succeed. Before he began to tell his story, Summerland made the students repeat "regardless of what the world may think or society stereotypes me, I am somebody," which became the theme of his speech to the children, who sat enthralled on the floor of the gymnasium.
"I am somebody too," Summerland told them. "I was born in Griffin a long time ago," he said, chuckling. "I was raised by my grandparents on Cook County; I am the grandson of two ex-slaves. I am somebody that had to struggle so that you could sit here today."
Alternating between serious and comical, Summerland kept the students entertained, motivated and made sure, above all, they were educated.
"Since you told me you were somebody, then you are my future. And I can’t tolerate morons and imbeciles and crazy people taking me across the street," he said with a smile, as the children giggled.
He urged them all to stay in school, saying that even sanitation workers were required to have at least a high school diploma these days, and reminded them that no matter how smart they were, their teachers were smarter.
He also brought the reality of racism and segregation to them, telling them about not being able to walk into the front door of the Fabulous Fox Theatre when he was a child delivering papers on a route in Atlanta.
"I had to go in the side door, and today we’re sitting here looking like a rainbow… All of you are courageous, but I want you to understand that courage has no color. So when life begins to pile hardships and all of this on top of you, remember that you are somebody.
"You’ve got a whole future ahead of you, and you are all my future."
He spoke to the students about truth, telling them that although he could share war stories with them, they were too young to hear the stories he had from fighting in World War II, and about dedication and determination to make something of themselves.
"You better have a dream," he said. "Society will destroy you if you’re not dedicated. Society will stop you dead in your tracks if you are determined. I’m about at the end of my dream, which started way back in Griffin, Georgia. It took me around the world four times and a piece. What can yours do for you?
"We were survivors. To this day we are still survivors. The Tuskegee Airmen were a bunch of people that had determination that they could do anything anybody else did. We’re still dedicated. And I know every one of you has a dream. My dream was instead of standing in front of a crop duster in Cook County, that I could fly an airplane – that I could fix an airplane. And it there’s anyone in the world that can fix an airplane better than me, the come on. I’d like for you all to have this same determination."