13.5 C

    Giving Back

    Edwina Thompson knows just how significant a good high school experience can be in shaping a young person’s future. Her time as a student at Chicago’s famed Lane Tech College Prep High School was so influential that on leaving, her dream was to return one day as principal: “I wanted to come back and give at least part of what people had given to me during my time there.”

    Thompson achieved that ambition two years ago when she was named the first Black principal at the Blue Ribbon school, one of U.S. News & World Report’s Top 100 high schools in the nation, and one of the top three in Illinois in 2019. The selective enrollment school founded in 1908—whose alumni include singer Frankie Laine and former Clinton administration chief of staffer John Podesta (plus WayMaker Journal publisher Louis Carr)—draws some 4,000 students to its Roscoe Park-area campus.

    Lane Tech’s considerable reputation is built on what Thompson calls its “long tradition of excellence and expected greatness,” but she didn’t know much about that growing up on Chicago’s West Side. Her interest was piqued when a Gospel choir from the school visited her local church, sharing the music she loved.

    Having an adult tell her she wouldn’t be able to get into Lane Tech only fueled her determination to do so. She applied and became the only eighth grader from her school to be accepted. “I was extremely excited,” she recalls. “I remember taking the bus there and getting off on the corner of Addison and Western and thinking, What have I done? But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

    On graduation, Thompson went to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for a bachelor’s in English secondary education with a minor in computer information systems. “Even when I was in school completing my program, I knew that I wanted to be at Lane Tech,” she says.

    I wanted to come back and give at least part of what people had given to me.


    Paying it forward
    Thompson turned down other positions she was offered to pursue her dream of returning to Lane Tech. “That was a conscious decision,” she says. “I knew what had been done for me at Lane Tech, and I knew what could be done for the kids who were coming behind me, and that was very important to me—that kids had not only someone who cared about them as individuals, but someone who may have traveled along that way, who had some experiences that might be very similar to theirs.”

    She could relate to things like the challenges of a long bus ride to and from school, figuring out “how can I stay late for this basketball game or participate in this activity and still get on the bus and travel back to the West Side of Chicago late at night, especially in the wintertime, during the snow,” she says. “So that was all a calculated decision for me, but I knew that it would mean so much to those who could benefit from seeing me in those spaces.”

    Arriving back at Lane Tech as part of the faculty in 2006, Thompson was a teacher and an assistant principal before being unanimously voted into the top spot in 2021. “It’s not just a job for me,” she says. “It’s a calling, and that calling means that I carry the responsibility of others on my shoulders, the same way that others have carried me. And so, when I do well, I’m doing well for an entire group of people, not just me. It’s not my accomplishment: This is something that we all get to say, ‘Look at this. This is what has occurred.’”

    Thompson sees something not just in the curriculum but in the culture at Lane Tech that inspires students to imagine more for their lives. “When you’re walking through those halls, when you are in those classes, it’s like there’s something bigger going on than what I’m typically used to,” she observes. “And then when you hear alums come back and they’re talking… and people proudly talk about you going to Lane… I believe that there’s this sense of pride that just builds over time to where you realize you’re not just a student at a high school, you are a student at the high school, which is Lane, and there’s a difference.”

    Honoring a pioneer
    Lane Tech’s student body represents a changing world to differing degrees. Girls slightly outnumber boys, while white (39%) and Hispanic (37%) are the two largest ethnic groups. Around 10% of the students are Asian, and just 6.6% Black. The school has a mostly white staff.

    I carry others on my shoulders, the same way that others have carried me.

    Thompson says people know that “even though I am a Black woman, I am interested in everyone succeeding. But I also know that our Black students, and even some of our Black staff, they are also relying on me to take care of them in this space. That’s a familial thing. That’s a cultural thing. It’s passed down within our culture and it’s very important to me that as I move through this that I am considering all, but that I also know that there are people who are going to tug on me a little bit differently because of that connection that they have to me culturally.”

    Since becoming principal, Thompson has got to be part of renaming the school’s athletic field after Frederick “Fritz” Pollard, a largely unknown alum who became the first Black professional quarterback in the NFL and a coach, a century ago. One of only two Black students at the school when he was there, Pollard later founded two football teams, the Chicago Black Hawks and the Harlem Brown Bombers.

    “Just having the opportunity to stand on that field and really channel that energy, it made me feel yes, we have a long way to go, but man have we come a long way,” Thompson says of the dedication ceremony last year. “Just the pride and the feeling like, we belong there. Because I think sometimes when you travel from these different spaces and you’re coming to the North Side of Chicago, sometimes as people of color, you don’t necessarily feel like you belong in a space.

    “And so to have that field and recognize that every time we walk through the gates of that stadium, he is enshrined on those pillars and his name sits on a scoreboard that can be seen from multiple areas… it places you in a different mindset about what you can do and how you can get there.”

    Thompson believes the Lane Tech experience is not only life-shaping for students—but also for others, through them. “It’s important for me, for them to leave Lane Tech not only as critical thinkers, but as people who care about their community, who want to contribute to the world so that when they leave the room it is not the same because they walked in the space, and they brought a piece of them that they left there.”

    My family was very big on education. My mom and my dad said, “If you don’t do anything else, you have to go to school. There are no other options.” They sacrificed and gave what they had—not much, but what they had—to make sure that I could do the things that I needed to do, and I’m grateful for that. When I think of Lane Tech, my mind goes directly to Mr. Darryl Backstrom, who was a PE teacher at the school. He was a sponsor of the Gospel choir, but he believed I could do anything. He’s the reason I ended up at the University of Wisconsin, and he really pushed for me to come back to Lane.

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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