After forty-three years of service, a matriarch in education is calling it quits. With the energy tantamount to her younger counterparts, Detroit Public Schools Community District educator, Evelyn Mann, is as lively as the rest. Nevertheless, she has decided to retire at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Mann, who has seen it all could arguably hold the current record as an active and continued employee of the school district that has changed names, leaders, and hands, but for the sixty-five year old, her mission has always been “people and children.”
Over the years, Mrs. Mann has witnessed the changes of a school district that once boasted neighborhood schools, high enrollment and test scores, to a changed educational landscape of increased charter schools, school closures, state takeovers, and deficits. As an educator she saw her share, and participated in, teacher strikes, lay-offs, and a sore spot for her daughter’s own involvement in administrative scandal that undermined families’ and teachers confidence in the school system. Nevertheless, this did not dissuade her hope in her profession and allegiance to her sole employee of more than four decades.
A graduate of Northeastern High School in 1971, a young Evelyn Rias Wilbourn (her name prior to remarrying) would cut her teeth in her craft at her alma mater in 1975 as a teacher. As she recalls, “Dr. Wilson, the principal, called me into his office and said Mrs. Wilbourn, have you been down to the Board? I said no”. Mrs. Mann, who had been on the job for more than a few weeks reflected on how things were much different then. “Back then they just helped you. Everything was about community and it was easy to take a chance on the students you graduated. Your diploma and training meant something.” She said she had begun work without signing a contract as she had merely gone back to the neighborhood school where she also was a coop student in high school and was given an opportunity. “He said [Dr. Wilson] we are going to pay you, but you have to go downtown to sign your contract to substitute teach,” says Mrs. Mann. “You had to be a sub first but the good part about it was, teachers could take a leave to go abroad and explore new opportunities, so the teacher [she replaced] had taken a leave, so I was in her class, and I was there every day,” she recalls. Her presence and her attendance record has always been beyond reproach, Mrs. Mann is known for her commitment and has more than a school year’s worth of sick days that she has refused to abuse though she will not be able to cash in as an incentive upon retirement.
When asked about why she thinks attendance is important she explains, “I think it’s important to have a strong work ethic and I like what I do. I certainly think that things happen in life and because teaching is such an under appreciated profession, there is a need to self-care, but as teachers we must also be reminded about why we do it. I cannot think of a job more important or rewarding than a teacher. I never got into it to be rich, but the work, and the difficulties these days in doing it, is deserving of a livable wage and respect across the board from leaders and the community. For me, personally, I know that I have witnessed so much as a teacher, before being promoted to central office, that it is enough for a book.” In 1987, Mrs. Mann was at work and partially mobile due to a surgery at the former Murray-Wright High School, when high school football player, Chester “Bo” Jackson was murdered and shots rang through the halls in the middle of lunchtime. Mrs. Mann reflects on how school violence was not something new in urban centers and how the issues of poverty, conflict, social climate and education are parsed too often when they have a semblance of intersectionality in order to address the systemic needs. Mrs. Mann pauses for a moment from being her jovial self to a more serious reflection and mood, “there are still many good things, people just need to take the time to look for and know what and who they are,” she adds about the system and those who have been around.
Mrs. Mann, whose paperwork with the school district has tenure that goes back to 1971, is a wealth of institutional knowledge from culture to curriculum, but who knows that she exists? “I have touched the lives of thousands of children who I was instrumental in them becoming good adults, those are the ones who count.” The Detroit Public Schools has been her sole employer since college in the 1970s. Her continued service with the schools has carried work acumen of commitment and a humble spirit that has never been big on titles or particular about positions.
She has worked hard to be a face that greets you with a smile and offer you a word of kindness with no respect of person. Mrs. Mann, the first to graduate from high school and college in her family thanks to TRIO Upward Bound and a mother with an expectation, has been a substitute teacher, contract teacher, department head, and supervisor has worked in many schools to include Northeastern High School, Murray Wright High School, Osborn High School, Davie Aerospace, Ronald McNair Junior High, and Brenda Scott Middle School. Currently, she oversees the Volunteer Reading Corps where she will leave her post in June 2019. For a district that has seen seismic changes in hopes of providing a new face and feel for its residents, with a new name added to the old, Evelyn finds herself to be the last man standing.