The soon-to-be new superintendent of New Bedford schools had his first chance to act in that role this week.
Thomas Anderson at his initial press conference was straightforward, down-to-earth and so solid in his political instincts that I could see right away why both the search committee and School Committee were so high on him.
I had put Anderson on the spot a bit during the presser when I asked him if he saw himself as having a particular responsibility as a black male leader in a New Bedford system, which at the high school level, is on the verge of becoming a majority-minority system.
It was a question I felt I had to ask because it’s important — just as the emergence of women leaders has been vitally important to young girls over recent decades, so is the emergence of African-American male leaders, particularly in an American school system in which boys in general are struggling, and particularly minority boys.
Anderson, in an easygoing and self-effacing manner, parried the question in stride.
But not at first. He at first began talking about how in his previous job some had said he was hired because he was African-American, and he talked about the need to encourage more men in general to go into teaching, and some of the financial reasons that many black men and women sometimes often cannot afford to go into teaching.
So I went back a second time: What about being a black male role model in a system with a large percentage of minorities?, I asked.
“I’m fully aware of that,” he joked and the crowd broke out in laughter.
And then Anderson graciously, and good-naturedly, explained how the awareness of being the first one is always with a black professional man.
“I’m fully aware of it all the time, I think, that in whatever role you’re in, you’re never off in terms of always doing the right thing. If you live by that, you’re going to do the right thing anyway.”
When he won the New Bedford job, Anderson said, a number of local people reached out to him, and one of them told him how great it would be for young minority men in the city to have a role model such as himself. That made him feel good of course, he said.
Anderson noted that he is the only African-American male superintendent in Massachusetts and that there are only two African-American female superintendents, one of whom used to be his assistant superintendent in Randolph, a majority minority suburb just south of Boston.
But even with that burden, he explained that racial identity is not the bottom line of what drives him.
“I just believe it’s not something special I should be doing,” he said of the role model thing. “I think if I’m doing the right thing every day, and living by that, people are able to see it.”
I would say that puts everything in a context that will play well in New Bedford, and would play well anywhere in the country.
The circumstances of race and gender are one thing and Anderson did not dismiss them. But he emphasized that they are not the only things, and not even the most important things.
This is a man with an awareness of who he is, and an awareness of what the country is, but perhaps most important an awareness of what human beings are.
Under the questioning by reporters, Anderson also talked, seemingly almost reluctantly, about a few aspects of his background that I think you’ll find compelling.
He grew up in East Hartford, the son of a woman from the deep woods of Mississippi who was the 16th of 19 children. He started playing football at nine and he managed to get to one of the most elite prep schools in the country, Philips Andover, for his last year of high school.
Mr. Anderson’s mother did not graduate from high school herself until after he was born and his father worked in a factory. His father’s father was a sharecropper in the deep South.
That is an American story we can all be inspired by.
You already know Tom Anderson’s own record of achievement. That he helped start a charter school in Chicago after graduating URI, worked as an assistant superintendent for instruction in Washington D.C., and then as a superintendent in Randolph.
He’s now coming to New Bedford, our city with its rich history and also its deep struggles with its economy and educational system in recent times.
He’s here to help us. We’re lucky to have him. And it’s going to be an interesting ride these next few years as he becomes “a Whaler” and works to give the New Bedford school system a record of improvement to match his own.