FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. — Melanie Stewart was told she couldn't learn. Decades later, she's proved everyone wrong as a successful educator and entrepreneur.
“Zachary, come sit right here,” Dr. Melanie Stewart tells a student in a classroom at Johnathan’s House, an after-school tutoring center.
In the classroom, Stewart has all eyes on her for a lesson in black history.
“What is the way I told y'all yesterday when you break “prejudice” down? You “pre-judge.”
“Prejudice” is word with which she's familiar – too familiar.
“In 1966, the new law said that black children could go to the all-white school,” Stewart recalled.
She was 6 years old, getting ready for her first day of first grade at the first-through-12th-grade school called Angier High School.
“My mom had bought me this pretty little blue, plaid dress with a pocket book to match. I mean, I had a pocket book!” Stewart recalled.
Her happiness faded as she stepped on school grounds.
“I heard, ‘Go home, nigg...’” she said. The memory turns ugly.
“You know, we were told we couldn't learn. My desk was in the back of the classroom, and all school year I colored and I could draw. I could do whatever I wanted to, but when I would raise my hand to answer a question, nobody would call on me. Nobody would play with me. I had to sit alone at lunch,” Stewart recalled.
And by the end of that first day, “My brand new dress was covered with eggs,” she told the children around her.
The experience taught her patience, she explained. That patience helped her conquer cancer, overcome a stroke, survive a bitter divorce and, at the age of 30, go to college.
There, she became the first black Ms. Campbell University.
“My whole life has changed,” Stewart said.
Now, Dr. Melanie Stewart wants to change the way we all look at learning.
Just as she was stereotyped when she was 6 because she was black, she said, “So many students now are stereotyped with a learning disability – ADHD, (or) they have a behavioral problem (or) there's some reason they can't learn.”
Stewart doesn't buy that. In 1992, she started Johnathan's House after-school tutoring centers, named for her nephew, Johnathan McEachin, who tutored many children in his neighborhood.
Now, they are statewide. Eight years ago, one of the centers grew into a private school in Fuquay-Varina.
“Johnathan’s House is for every child – every child,” Stewart said.
“I know how it feels to be the one in the class who’s left behind,” she said, and she's determined, not to let that happen to anyone else.