Newark man salutes middle-school teacher, gives her his college degree

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 14, 2015

Bai-Eyse Pugh shares a laugh with his eighth grade teacher Stephanie Hairston at William H. Brown Academy in Newark on March 12, 2015. Pugh gave his Bachelor of Arts diploma from Montclair State University to Stephanie Hairston for her encouragement to continue his education.

 

Bai-Eyse Pugh was sitting at home in Newark, wondering what to do with his college degree.

It had arrived in the mail in January from Montclair State University. Maybe, he'd frame it and hang it on the wall.

Random thoughts sailed through his head, but seeing his name in that space didn't quite feel right.

"This has my name on it, but this is not mine,'' he says.

Pugh, 22, thought about Stephanie Hairston, his eighth-grade teacher from William H. Brown Academy in Newark. The building is closed now, but that's where she saw something in the chubby-cheeked, shy kid, who didn't talk to anyone very much back then.

"This is hers," he thought.

Hairston hadn't been just his language arts teacher. She became his big sister, aunt, disciplinarian, godmother and mother all rolled up into the one person who cared.

He can't explain the connection, but she saw potential in him - potential that surfaced as he moved further away from painful memories of being placed in foster care.

Pugh, at age 9, was separated from his three sisters and his mother, who had a substance abuse problem. Though he had lived in Plainfield, it was a difficult transition to move to suburban foster homes and to be without his family.

"I remember crying for two days straight, just to release the pain," he says.

Pugh came to Newark at age 10, where he settled with a foster mother. She cared for him, but that extra hand of guidance was missing until he met Hairston in middle school.

Hairston helped him get into a magnet public high school, pushing him to write his essay, even though he was stubborn and sometimes lazy. If he didn't apply to the charter school, he would have gone to his neighborhood high school.

"He was smart," she says. "He was the type of kid that, if he was shown what the world was, he would embrace it."

After he was accepted to American History High School in Newark, Pugh would always return to the middle school to see Hairston.

He didn't say much, sharing only small talk during his visits every other week. She did most of the probing, asking him about high school, wanting to see his report card. And when she saw C's and D's, she let him have it - just like any concerned mother.

"I was like, 'Okay, you lost your mind,' " she says. "I'm going to help you find it real fast."

And Pugh did, because she told him that his academic performance was unacceptable and that he was going to college. He improved his grades and in a hurry.

He had never thought about college until he met Hairston, who introduced him to college graduates and outings to Rutgers University football games with her family and friends.

His natural mother didn't finish high school. His foster mother, a nice woman, didn't go to college. Hairston, a Hampton University graduate, planted the seed and took him under her wing.

"She took me out of my element and showed me it was possible," Pugh says

She took him on college tours, and when he was accepted to Montclair State, Hairston took him shopping and paid for school necessities.

"I think that's when I realized this is going to be long term," she says.

After helping him to move in to his dorm room, Hairston checked on him like a mother hen, asking about his grades during phone calls.

The dismal 1.5 grade point average in his first semester didn't go over well. Her terse comments hurt even more.

"She said, 'I'm disappointed in you,' " Pugh recalls. "That stuck with me more than any other time she might have been stern with me.''

Pugh says he let her down because he made some bad choices. He didn't manage the freedom of being in school with its awesome responsibility. The only way out of this hole was to get cracking and to regain the trust of a teacher who did so much for him. He made the dean's list - which requires a 3.5 GPA - every semester from his sophomore year on and graduated with a cumulative 3.4 GPA.

Pat yourself on the back, fella. It was his biggest accomplishment, but he had one more thing to do.

He called Hairston and asked her to stop by his home on Hunterdon Street because he had something on his mind.

"Oh god, what now," she says.

Just like a mother to worry about her child doing something crazy.

All the while, Pugh was thinking how lucky he has been to have someone such as Hairston in his life. He could have easily been one of his friends, stunted by street life.

"I wonder how many other kids would this help, if they had somebody like her in their life," he says. "She steered me in the right direction."

Hairston, who now teaches at Chancellor Avenue School, drove to Pugh's house. When she arrived, he got into her car and handed her a large envelope.

"This is for you," he told her.

It was the college degree that he earned in justice studies.

She somehow managed to hold back the tears.

"I'm like 'Wow,' " she says.

It was the second time she felt this way. The first time occurred when she dropped him off at college. He gave her a handwritten letter, telling her that she was his biggest inspiration and that he loved her.

"I look at you as my mother because you are," Pugh wrote.

He signed it, "Sincerely, your son."

And four years later, here he is, paying her the greatest homage.

She tried to give the degree back to him, but Pugh wouldn't take it. She insisted.

"You did this," she told him.

But he wouldn't budge. His mind was made up.

"This is not possible without you," he told her.

What a moment. Pugh is the first person in his family to graduate and he'll walk across the stage in May to complete the journey.

Hairston will be out there watching, but this time, she'll let the tears fall.

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