Thursday, November 20, 2008

Life lessons from Wyshina Harris

by: Colleen McCain Nelson

03:05 PM CST on Thursday, November 20, 2008

When I wandered into the after-school academy at Turner Courts last year, I was enveloped by enthusiasm.

There, in some of the sorriest public housing this city had to offer, kids were clamoring for chess lessons. They were creating a blog on the computer, learning photography, reading to one another.

These elementary school students in navy-and-white uniforms were soaking up everything their teachers could tell them about the big world beyond a South Dallas neighborhood where the main road literally is a dead end.

Wyshina Harris, a single mom who spent six years in the Air Force, was making it all happen. As the education outreach manager for the academy, she commanded the room with a quiet presence that demanded respect.

I told Ms. Harris that I'd like to write about the after-school program, this bright spot on Bexar Street. Perhaps the attention would bolster the academy's fundraising efforts, I noted as I surveyed the modest classrooms.

Ms. Harris, who lived for four years at Turner Courts, was friendly but firm.

"This is not some charity," she told me.

Parents and kids alike at Turner Courts are seeking opportunities – not handouts, she added. And a volunteer's gift of time and energy is more valuable than cash.

"Don't come in and give a bike at Christmas and expect these kids' lives to be OK," Ms. Harris said. "Help them with their homework for a year."

I explained those sentiments in an essay about Ms. Harris and her colleague, Sylvia Baylor. Headlined "Lessons in success," the column reflected some of what I'd learned from these two mothers determined to do right by the kids of Turner Courts.

The article was one of the first in this newspaper's continuing series focused on putting neglected southern Dallas neighborhoods on equal footing with the rest of the city. And as I've continued to write about Dallas' north-south disparity, I've carried Ms. Harris' words with me.

While her neighborhood and some of the challenges Ms. Harris faced were much different from what many of us are accustomed to, her priorities – her children, her church, her job – were familiar to folks everywhere. I learned from Ms. Harris that our lives weren't all that different.

Last weekend, I was only half-listening to a 10 p.m. TV news report about a Dallas woman fatally shot in her car. The story had all the makings of the horrific but somewhat distant crime that compels many people to channel-surf right by.

Too often, we do a quick assessment of bad news: Not my neighborhood. Not my friends or family. Not my problem.

But, I learned, this was not just "a Dallas woman" who was murdered. This was Wyshina.

The news report offered the basic who, what, where information: Ms. Harris had been driving to her job as assistant manager of a liquor store. (She had been laid off from the academy in May when Central Dallas Ministries restructured its after-school program.) She had kissed her kids goodbye, hopped in her car and was shot in the neck as she drove down Scyene Road.

But the story couldn't explain how Ms. Harris had coached 6-year-old Raquasha to shake my hand, how she had singled out students and praised their good deeds, how she'd taught me more than I bargained for. Ms. Harris, like many of the people who get only a passing mention in the crime blotter, wasn't just the anonymous victim of an unsolved murder.

Ms. Harris had an unshakable belief that both she and the kids she worked with were going places. "People here are trying to move up, move out," she told me. "We try to teach the kids: This is not it. Turner Courts is not it."

She had moved up and out of Turner Courts – to a home in Pleasant Grove.

Now, 12-year-old Jazmine and 7-year-old Jordan will say goodbye to their mother at tomorrow's funeral. She was 32.

Wyshina Harris' story should not have ended this way. But if there is any solace to be found, it is that those who knew this determined woman will continue to benefit from her lessons in success.

Colleen McCain Nelson is a Dallas Morning News editorial writer. This column represents her personal opinion; her e-mail address is
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