“Whatever you need, you can count on her.”
At Lamphere High School, the mutual love and respect between Jacqueline Gilmore and her students is obvious. All day long, students stop by her classroom just to say hello, to check in, to connect. “Helloooo, Mrs. G,” one girl sings as she races down the hall. “Hi, Momma G!” shouts another passerby. “How’s your day goin’ Momma G?” asks someone else.
Again and again, Gilmore — aka Mrs. G or Momma G — replies with equal enthusiasm. “Bye, sweetie!” she says. “Hi, ladies!” “Feeling okay, hon?”
Early this morning, before school begins here in Madison Heights, Michigan, on the outskirts of Detroit, there are kids hanging out with Gilmore in her classroom. At lunchtime, instead of eating in the cafeteria, they congregate in Gilmore’s room. After school, those kids who can’t or don’t want to go home for one reason or another do their homework under Gilmore’s watchful eye. Lamphere’s principal, Rodney Thomas, refers to Gilmore as a “kid magnet.”
What makes Gilmore a kid magnet is that she offers refuge from everything that is awful about high school: humiliation, abuse, shame, and anxiety, to name a few. The students here, mostly white, and mostly from working class families with household incomes below the national average, face not only the turmoil of adolescence but, in some cases, neglect and abuse at home; so far this year, Lamphere’s administrators have called on the state’s Child Protective Services four times. For Lamphere’s most vulnerable students, in particular, Gilmore’s classroom is a safe zone. “In Mrs. G’s classroom,” attests a senior named Cameron Stewart, “all the world’s negativity disappears.”
“We’ve had some kids make it through high school just because of Jackie Gilmore,” says Principal Thomas. “I can’t tell you how many, I can’t give you a number, but I know there are kids who have made it through school just because Jackie is here; there’s no doubt about that.”
“In Mrs. G’s classroom, all the world’s negativity disappears.”
Norman Yacoob remembers clearly his first day of high school; so anxious, he was almost sick to his stomach. High school isn’t easy for anyone — or not for most of us, anyway — but for Norman, who had arrived in Detroit only a few years earlier as a refugee from Baghdad, that first day of school seemed especially alienating. Like hundreds of thousands of other Assyrian Christians, he and his parents and two brothers had fled their homeland to escape the horrific persecution and violence they faced in the wake of the Iraq War.
In America, the family started over. Norman’s father, who’d been a professional pianist back home, got an assembly-line job making bumpers for Chevy Silverados. His mother found work as a part-time table dealer at the MotorCity Casino. Norman, whose schooling had been interrupted by war, was older than the other freshmen at Lamphere High, and painfully shy. Walking the hallways that disorientating first day of ninth grade, clutching his books to his chest, he heard a warm, welcoming voice: “Hey there, you!” It was Mrs. G. “Words can’t describe the energy she gave off,” remembers Norman, now a junior. “I had never met her before, yet it was like she’d known me my whole life.”
In his nomination of Gilmore for the Honored Award, Norman, who has since gone on to be one of Lamphere’s top students, describes her as the “most compassionate, loving, selfless, and caring person I know,” a description that is echoed by others. “Whatever you need, you can count on her.”
Recently, during one especially rough patch at school, Norman turned to Gilmore for support. A confrontation with a classmate had turned ugly, and he didn’t know what to do. Panic set in. He was afraid to go to school. Gilmore didn’t intervene directly in the conflict; rather, she offered Norman the faith and encouragement he needed to find his way through the tumult. “Tomorrow you’ll wake up in a better place,” she texted him. “Trust me. Do your best, get some sleep, and everything will be alright.” It was exactly what he needed to regain his confidence.
Compassion and empathy define Gilmore’s approach to teaching. “When someone’s crying, it’s hard for me not to say, ‘Hey, let me hug you. It’s going to be fine. Whatever’s going on, you’re going to be okay,’” she says. It’s lunchtime, and Gilmore’s taking a quick break after teaching three tenth grade English classes back-to-back. She’s eating leftovers: meatloaf, corn casserole, and collard greens that her husband made for dinner last night. “I don’t have to be in their business,” she continues, “but I can recognize that there’s a problem, that they’re hungry or there’s an issue at home, or they’re sick, or grappling with bullying, or suffering with mental problems.”
So widely known is Gilmore as Lamphere’s go-to teacher for students in need, that other teachers lean on her for help. The day I visited, Gilmore received an urgent email from another teacher about a ninth grader who, the email attested, “is having a tough time with school, friends, and family.” The student’s creative writing was “dark.” Her teacher felt she could benefit from Gilmore’s counsel: “She did not ask me to reach out to you, but if you could keep her on your radar that would be great.” Gilmore is accustomed to such requests. “Thanks so much for letting me know,” she replied immediately. “I will be sure to take some time to chat with her and keep her on my radar.”
“We’ve had some kids make it through high school just because of Jackie Gilmore.”
Principal Rodney Thomas
As the only African American teacher at Lamphere High — and as one of only two African American teachers serving 2,500 students in the entire district — Gilmore is uniquely suited to understand what it means to be an outsider. Her parents, who moved to Detroit from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1960s, were part of the Great Migration of African Americans who came north to escape discrimination and find employment. Her father, whose own parents had been sharecroppers in Alabama, earned enough as a maintenance worker at Ford’s Glass Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, to allow Gilmore’s mother to stay at home with Jackie and her two brothers.
Above all, Gilmore’s parents instilled in their children a commitment to helping others. “We didn’t have extra. We didn’t have an extra bedroom. We didn’t have extra anything,” says Gilmore. “But when my parents would hear about someone who needed help, the next thing you know, that person had moved into our home or my mom would be packing food for her. My mom, she’d go through our stuff, packing things in bags, saying ‘Someone else needs this more than you.’”
What Jackie Gilmore remembers most about her childhood is how emphatically her parents supported and encouraged her. Her father hadn’t finished high school, let alone college, yet he insisted that Jackie attend the distinguished Cass Technical High School, no matter that it took an hour to get there from their home in Linwood, on Detroit’s west side. Oftentimes, when he got off his night shift at the Glass Plant, he’d show up at Cass Tech. “He’d come down the hallways in his shiny church shoes, click clack, click clack,” remembers Gilmore. “He wanted people to know we had parents who cared about us.”
Early in her childhood, Gilmore’s father became an ordained minister with the Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination, and established his own storefront church on Eight Mile Road. As a teenager, Jackie Gilmore served as Little Rock Tabernacle’s Sunday school teacher and camp counselor, offering guidance and providing meals to children, many of whom came from turbulent homes.
It took Gilmore a long time to discover her passion for teaching. “I took the back roads to get to where I am now,” is how she puts it. After graduating from high school in 1986, she enrolled at Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, but soon found she couldn’t afford the tuition. For the next few years, she cycled through odd jobs to make ends meet, juggling loans and saving just enough money to take occasional classes at one community college or another. By the time her son was born in 1992, Gilmore was working full time as a dispatcher at the Madison Heights Police Department. Being a mother motivated her to finish college and find a career, even if the effort of doing so while raising a child and working full time required “superhuman” effort (and “very little sleep”). In 1995, at the age of 29, she at last earned her B.A. in teaching from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In 2009, she earned her master’s degree.
"Mrs. G is the most compassionate, loving, selfless, and caring person I know."
Gilmore has been a teacher now for 13 years. She’s a relatively new teacher, with all the energy and enthusiasm that affords. At the same time, being older — easily as old as most of her students’ mothers — and having taken the back roads to get to where she is now, makes it easier for her to see the big picture. In a world fraught with uncertainty, she offers her students a positive, hopeful narrative that they can latch onto.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s enough just that they get here,” she remarks. “It can take a lot just to get to school, so my mantra is: Why not help them? Why not do what it takes to make it easier for them?”
Photography by Jesse Green
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