October 2009 The Good Life Claudeen Bryant Nick Dunn
The young girl in eighth-grade science class may look like she's doing all right, but Claudeen Bryant knows better. The fifth-year teacher at inner-city Nashville's (Tenn.) Haynes Middle School has been around long enough to see through the facade of most struggling adolescents. She knows how easy it can be to trick people into believing everything is OK when, inside, you're an emotional wreck.
Bryant makes it her mission to reach out to the young girl. She starts with a simple "hello" in the hallway. Then she initiates a few casual conversations after class. Before long, Bryant has broken through, and the girl opens up, sharing her story of physical abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Bryant learns of the girl's low self-opinion, the lies she believes about herself and her need to get attention from others in the wrong ways.
Claudeen "C.C." Bryant and her son, El-Jhari
Bryant knows what she has to do. It's time for her to tell the girl her story, too. But, being savvy enough to know that there are many others just like this young girl, Bryant doesn't want to just tell one girl. She wants a handful of others to know their teacher on a deeper level.
"School days aren't just for school work," she says. "There are some students who need to see a teacher's transparency so they know that they're human, just like everybody else."
So Bryant begins to tell her story to a group of her students. It's one they certainly won't forget.
Claudeen Chantelle ("C.C.") Bryant didn't have an ideal childhood. She didn't grow up in the middle of the American Dream. No suburbs. No golden retriever. No nice house with a white picket fence.
C.C. grew up in the inner city of Chattanooga, Tenn. She attended church with her mother, Ianthe, and she came to know Christ at an early age.
Ianthe, of Moroccan descent, taught C.C. the value of performing arts and theater, while William, C.C.'s father, handled the athletic instruction. A former football player at Tennessee State University, William was C.C.'s athletic mentor. He coached, taught and cheered for her. As C.C. put it, "He was my knight in shining armor."
By the time C.C. reached fourth grade, however, a poisonous addiction shattered her home life, as William became hooked on drugs.
"School days aren't just for school work. There are some students who need to see a teacher's transparency so they know that they're human, just like everybody else."
The situation took a toll on C.C. and the family, and she was forced into a children's home for part of the year. While there, C.C. became so distraught that she tried to take her own life by slashing her wrists. Fortunately, she stopped "when it started hurting."
After her stay in the children's home, C.C. returned to her own home and school where she got involved with anything and everything she could to stay out of trouble. By high school, if an activity was listed, C.C. was probably signed up for it: performing arts, softball, cheerleading, music, student council. She even kept good grades and earned a full academic scholarship to Tennessee State.
Unfortunately, just like her future science student, C.C.'s vibrant personality and active lifestyle were only masking inner turmoil.
"You know Smokey Robinson's 'Tears of a Clown'? 'When no one's around, you're crying'?" she asked. "That was me. I was so upbeat that no one ever knew what was going on."
C.C.'s spiritual journey through her teens and into college was more of a task than a lifestyle. More than anything else, she went to church just to show up. It was another activity on the checklist.
In her first year at TSU, she "kicked it too hard," and lost her scholarship before her college career ever really materialized. One night, as she was crying on the steps outside one of the buildings, C.C.'s future mentor, Dr. Terrance Johnson, stopped and consoled her.
"I didn't even know he knew me, but he just lifted me up and told me to keep going," C.C. said.
IN A MAN'S WORLD
|As a member of the Women's Football League's Tennessee Heat, C.C. Bryant and her team had an opportunity to be part of a local parade in Nashville. The players wore their jerseys as they went down the street and greeted onlookers. But the response was not encouraging from everyone in the crowd, particularly a few females.|
"Girls aren't supposed to be playing football!" they yelled. "You all need to put on skirts!"
That was the reaction Bryant expected to receive when she became an assistant football coach at Haynes Middle School four years ago. After all, the football field isn't usually a welcoming environment for women.
To her delight, Bryant hasn't had any problems being received — not by other coaches, players or parents. Though, there was the one instance in which the wife of a referee challenged Bryant's knowledge of the rules. But that issue was quickly resolved.
"She didn't overstep her boundaries; she just felt like she knew the rules more than I did," Bryant said, laughing. "Other than that, no one's come up to contest my ability."
Bryant with FCA President/CEO Les Steckel and FCA Area Representative Lee Brown at the 2009 AFCA Convention
It's hard to argue with success. Bryant coordinated a stout defense for three years before taking over as head coach last season. But it's more than her knowledge of the game that wins her players over; it's her love for them and passion to see them succeed.
Said Haynes Principal Bob Blankenship: "The players know who's in charge, but they also know that she's a coach who cares about their well-being. She gains their respect very quickly because she's tough. I wouldn't want to tangle with her. But she also knows how to reach them and bring out their best."
A few months later, unsure of how she was going to pay for another semester of school, the financial aid office informed C.C. that her next semester was anonymously paid for. To this day, C.C. still doesn't know who supplied the money, but she honored the donor's gift by continuing in her studies at Tennessee State, winning back her scholarship and, after five years, graduating with honors.
Following C.C.'s graduation from TSU, Dr. Johnson informed her of a genetics grant to fully fund a master's program. Which she applied for and got. By the time she was in her late 20's, she had finished grad school and was pursuing a Ph.D. But two years before she was scheduled to finish it, C.C. made the choice to purse a different calling not in hands-on science, but in the teaching of it.
Before long, the doctor was walking the Haynes hallways as a middle school teacher.
Haynes Principal Bob Blankenship's first impression of C.C. Bryant was memorable. She pulled out all the stops and put her acting background to good use.
"She came in here and put on the theatrics," Blankenship said. "As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I hired her was because she put on such a good act. But she really followed it up with substance. It's Claudeen's demeanor; it's her personality; it's how she comes across and the respect she gains from all the students — male or female — that really sets her apart."
Now five years into the job, C.C. has no trouble relating to the kids. It certainly helps that she's never met a stranger in her life. But one unexpected area in which C.C. has perhaps the greatest impact is one far from the classroom. It is on, of all places, the football field.
As the only female football coach in the entire district, most people assume that C.C. lives a nerve-wracked life as a coach. Not true.
"When I first started I was so scared, and I just didn't feel like I could do it," said C.C., who is in her second season as the head coach after spending three as the defensive coordinator. "Out of everything, though, I've never had a parent or player question my ability as a coach. That, to me, is an awesome blessing. I was expecting more men to snuff at me."
C.C.'s background in football helps — she played middle linebacker for the Women's Football League's Tennessee Heat — but it's her strong demeanor and toughness that allow her to excel. When she took over the Haynes defense, the team went from 1-5 to 5-1 in a single season, and they've had a winning record every season since.
During one memorable game, an opposing coach attempted to motivate his players by threatening them to avoid "losing to a girl."
"We won," she quipped, "so that definitely didn't work."
In addition to football, C.C. also helps coach the wrestling team, coordinate school talent shows and sponsor health organizations. And now she's working with FCA's Lee Brown to start a Huddle at the school.
But another important detail to note is that C.C. does all this while taking care of her own beautiful and special 6-year-old son.
El-Jhari Ajani Denning was born to C.C. Bryant and Oscar Denning under less-than-optimal circumstances, not the least of which was C.C.'s situation as an unwed mother. On top of that, doctors also informed C.C. five months into her pregnancy that her baby would be born with lumbosacral agenesis, a rare condition that meant there were missing bones and damaged nerves in the child's spinal cord. In short, he would be confined to a wheelchair.
C.C. and Denning had 10 days to decide whether or not to proceed with the pregnancy.
Above: El-Jhari followed in his mother's theatrical footsteps, dancing on stage at FCA's Black Mountain Coaches Camp this summer.
"I was scared, and I cried," C.C. said. "I had to go back to my 16-hour-a-day grad school classes, and I couldn't focus. But God just gave that soft comfort to me and eased me while I told the doctors that I wasn't going to worry about it."
Told that her baby would likely not live to full-term and would have developmental disabilities, C.C. pressed on through the pregnancy. And, now, young El-Jhari is her pride and joy.
Yes, he is wheelchair-bound, but he's no slouch in school or on the athletic fields. He can run around on his hands, play basketball, pound smooth rhythms on the drums and participate in martial arts classes. In no small way, the young man's physical ability is a great source of encouragement to his mom and the others who see him in action.
"He's incredible," said FCA Vice President of Coaches Ministry Donna Noonan, who met C.C. and El-Jhari at FCA's Black Mountain Coaches Camp this summer. "He fit right in at camp. He motors around and can move faster on the floor with his hands than most kids can on their feet."
C.C.'s unending love for El-Jhari is communicated clearly (even through phone interviews). She gave him the name El-Jhari because it is Hebrew for "he who is enlightened by God," and followed it with Ajani, which is Swahili for "he who overcomes the struggle."
Having El-Jhari has also reinforced God's power and influence in C.C.'s life. Last December, she underwent surgery to have a tumor removed from behind her ear, and her son, instead of complaining or not understanding, climbed into the hospital bed, put his arm around his mother and said a quick prayer for her as she fell asleep.
Although C.C. and El-Jhari's father have never been married and are not currently together, the two have a strong friendship. They attend the same church (Oscar plays bass, and C.C. sings in the choir), and, right now, they're focused on giving their son the best life possible.
In regards to C.C.'s familial relationships, she also is now very close with both her mother and father. Ianthe and William never divorced and persevered through his struggles with drugs, which ended four years ago. C.C. speaks with both of them almost daily.
For many years, C.C. tried to pretend those problems with her family didn't exist. As a coping mechanism, she buried them deep in her memories. At Haynes, however, she realized God had taken her through those trials so that she could have an impact on kids who were going through similar situations. Now, much of what the students bring to C.C., she has experienced firsthand.
"I thank God for the troubles I've had because it helps me to see things," she said. "If I see something going on with a student, I'm aware of it. And when I'm aware of it, I can talk with them and help them."
C.C.'s life as a walking testimony is impacting the lives of children in some of the country's toughest circumstances. Her transparency lets them in, and her authenticity builds them up. C.C.'s students know they can trust and look to her for guidance, and that, as much as she fears saying it, "is even more important than grades."
One student she's hurting most over right now is a young boy she lost this April. The word "lost," which C.C. herself uses, whispers volumes about the cruel reality of her environment.
This student — then an eighth-grader — was shot and killed because of previous gang-related activities.
What continues to this day to offer C.C. hope were the final months of the boy's life. She'd watched him start going back to church. She knew he was meeting and praying with teachers and telling them of his dreams to one day attend college. Just before he was shot, she heard him speak to fifth graders at the school about not making the same mistakes he'd made.
Those stories bring C.C. to tears. They confirm that her efforts aren't in vain. Teachers can truly have a lasting impact and effect change in a dark world. And that's what keeps her going.
"Everyone says, 'It couldn't be me, girl. I don't know how you do it,'" she said, "but it's not me. God gives me that calm, and I just have to allow myself to see it. He has put me through a lot of situations to remind me of His protection, grace and love. Through it all, He just keeps tapping me on the shoulder saying that it's all good. My life ain't bad, even though everyone thinks it is. When He calms me, it doesn't seem like a lot after all."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of The Nashville Tennesean; Michael Hodges; Claudeen Bryant.