A role model returns

Growing up in North Philly, Salome Thomas-EL dreamed of slam-dunking his way to fame and fortune as a basketball star. That never happened, but Thomas-EL, a gifted child, aced his way through school, graduated from college and quickly landed a high-profile Manhattan media career.

Today, he’s the principal of John F. Reynolds Elementary School, and a nationally recognized mentor. At the Penn Bookstore May 20 (in an event co-sponsored by Penn’s African American Resource Center), Thomas-EL described his career turnaround and talked about his new book, “I Choose to Stay: A Teacher Fights for America’s Inner City Schools.”

Checkmate

The epiphany took place, Thomas-EL explained, when he visited his old neighborhood to talk to schoolchildren about his career. It was then he realized he had “failed to give anything back.”

Quitting his TV career, Thomas-EL returned to Philly to teach math at the Robert Vaux Middle School, where he found a way to inspire his students—and teach critical thinking skills—by reviving the school’s chess team and leading the young players to victory in three major national championships.

MBA, not NBA

Thomas-EL’s message—that academic achievement, not the vain hope of making it big in the NBA, is the key to success —is still a hard sell, he conceded. As one of only four blacks to graduate in his class from East Stroudsburg University out of a freshman group of 100, he knows the obstacles first hand. “There’s a fear of alienation from our peers,” he said. And positive role models are still scarce. “We don’t hear about the ones who graduate with honors. We hear about the ones who stick up the Wawa or abandon a baby in Baltimore.”

Yet Thomas-EL persists. To help make it real, he takes his students to visit colleges, returning years later to attend their graduations. “We’ve been to a lot of funerals. We need to go to more graduations.”

Though Thomas-EL walked away from the world of entertainment, lately it has come knocking. Walt Disney just signed up to produce a movie based on his life story.

 

Originally published on June 10, 2004