By Tony Glaros
Special to The Sentinel
WHEATON – On a sun-drenched Friday morning, Reggie Wright pulled up a seat at a computer terminal where a coworker was pensively flipping through the pages of an Algebra textbook.
“You do guided practice,” began Wright, 50, who directs the math department at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring as he gazed at the layout in one section. “You get to the end of the lesson and ask ‘do you understand?’” he added, with his tone soft and sure.
The teacher nodded, telegraphing a message to his boss that they were conceptually on the same page. Wright, the consummate teacher, and enlightened thinker, was guiding his staff members on a trajectory of more complete, more expansive, understanding, that will benefit the rising generation as it gradually stamps its footprint on a world cascading with technological changes.
“Look at the lesson,” Wright said, his voice warm and easy. “It explains everything.”
Three minutes passed and the abbreviated tutorial was over. Wright stood up, pivoted, and again immersed himself in its contents, this time with a visitor standing at his side.
“The book is absolutely great!” he exclaimed. “Prince George’s County Schools (PGCPS) uses it. It’s less expensive. You get more bang for the buck.” The curriculum specialists in Montgomery County, the largest public school system in Maryland, would do well to weigh the merits and introduce it into its sequence of instruction.
Wright’s singular goal, his platform, has but one nail in it: to nourish human performance. It penetrates deep into every fiber of his soul, informing every decision he makes. For example, his light shines on the importance of living life purposefully while preaching that setbacks are simply comebacks in disguise.
In a fragile world, Wright, ever the advocate, boils the value of education down to its essential ingredients. “You may be poor and don’t have,” he said, “but you’d better pull yourself up. You can’t be a knowledge rejecter.”
Step into his private office, and you might discover yourself awash in sensory overload. The walls and the ceiling are festooned with awards from students and staff, recognizing him for bringing his A-game to everything he touches.
Settling in his chair, looking comfortable in a crisp, white polo shirt, Wright talked about his life. He was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Later, he moved to Atlanta, completed high school, and attended Morehouse College on a Naval ROTC scholarship. After two years at the famed institution, he transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in math and did his graduate work.
Shifting his gaze back to his days in Atlanta, Wright said he lived on Auburn Avenue, “two houses down from the Charleston House, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born.” King’s father, he added, was pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, “at the end of the street, on the corner.”
Growing up in the South, where vestiges of discrimination lingered, he acknowledged he didn’t sufficiently grasp where life had taken him.
“I really didn’t understand the gravity of where I was living until much later,” he said. As he matured and focused a more critical lens, he would become sensitized. “I played the “Eyes on the Prize” tape every day,” he said, referring to the acclaimed 1980s PBS television series that followed the traumatic road civil rights crusaders trod, from issues dealing with the Montgomery bus boycott to the push for full voting rights.
Wright was not born during the early days of the civil rights movement. Later, though, he witnessed the backwash. It is a poignant, disturbing memory that’s forever carved into his brain.
Before heading north to Maryland, “when I was a young man, back in 1985-86, I recall the KKK having an organized rally and marching in downtown College Park, Georgia to protest the Dr. King holiday. They were in full regalia.” What reverberated, he went on, was seeing the marchers wielding “the cross of Christ on all their garments, yet hated a man, Dr. King, who represented Christ in his quest for freedom, justice and equality.”
Wright, like a sturdy oak tree, towers over most everyone in the halls at Kennedy, where he’s taught for 20 years. Between classes, he makes frequent stops, drawing admirers in like a magnet, cheerily surrounded by kids who hail from five continents. While juggling one of the busiest departments, his week doesn’t end on Friday at 2:30.
Beyond his weekday duties at Kennedy, where he’s taught for 20 years, his search and rescue assignment surges during the weekend. Wright enthusiastically and prayerfully takes his light into an array of other settings.
For starters, he teaches Saturday school in Montgomery County. There’s night school and summer school as well. Add to the list his position at Bowie State University (BSU), where he serves as an adjunct math professor.
On Sunday morning, he drives from his College Park home to Fort Meade. There, within the shadow of the National Security Agency, he volunteers at New Beginnings, the District of Columbia’s secure residential treatment center for juveniles.
“My role is to go in as a spiritual counselor, advisor, confidant, and minister to everyone I am blessed to converse and pray with them,” he explained, the excitement in his voice building. “We literally have a church service for the young people.”
But Wright is just warming up.
From Fort Meade, he’s on the move again, this time en route to his own church, Union Temple Baptist in Southeast Washington. There, he directs the prison ministry and tutors “all of our children, teenagers, and young adults.”
Finally, wrapping up his recitation, he revealed the secret to maintaining such a disciplined routine. “My students keep me fit and energized,” he declared. “I work out as regularly as possible, between 4:15 a.m. and 5:15 a.m., at Planet Fitness. I don’t eat red meat. The key to my health and well being is I drink at least a gallon of water each day.”
A Kennedy staffer, who did not want to be identified, said Wright was the complete package. “He’s pretty much a phenomenal person. He’s very religious. He’s a family man. He’s community-oriented. And he’s the office handyman.”
At one time, Wright said, his sights were set on becoming a full-time pastor. “I was on the cusp.” That dream, however, didn’t work out according to his vision, and God sent him into a more temporal direction while keeping his spiritual values on full display, regardless of where he toiled.
“Right now,” announced the father of seven, “I’ve got my sword and my shield in one, which is my Bible.” He lifted his hands to illustrate his point. “And I’ve got my bread and butter, my math book, in the other.” Even after investing decades in the field of education, he said, if he had to do it over again, he would choose to teach. “I can reach more individuals, regardless of color or faith. When the light bulb comes on when I hear students say I got it!’ I feel a sense of accomplishment.” Had he opted to be a full-time minister, he reasoned, the reach of his light, his energy, would be limited to fellow Christians in his flock.
A tiny container filled with ashes sits at one corner of his desk. It serves as a daily reminder of an epiphany that bubbled up in his life that shaped the way he looked at humanity.
That moment, Wright said, came while training to be a mortician. Part of his job, he said, involved cremating bodies. From the first day, he noticed something that was at once, simple and profound.
“At that moment,” he remarked, “you’re not Jewish, you’re not a Christian or a Muslim. People need to be loved, cared for, ministered to…grief does not discriminate.”
“If I were to take that cremains and put it in some sort of seed, nothing’s going to happen,” he said, his voice softening. “But if I take that same seed and put it in the dirt, something’s going to happen; something’s going to sprout.”
He paused to stare at the jar. “Before we start being puffed up, at the end of the day, the dirt has more organic value than the cremains.”