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Claressa Hinton learned early there would always be things she couldn’t control. But that’s not surprising for someone who moved between 30 and 40 times between ages two and 18, who sometimes didn’t go to school because her parents couldn’t get her there. It was a turbulent childhood marked by failing grades, no dreams, fear she wouldn’t graduate, and none of the structure she craved.
Here she is in a home she bought herself from earnings helping children like her. Here she is, sitting on the plush mint-green sofa her daughter helped her choose. And there they are – two framed diplomas, tassels hanging from the top – reminding her she can do anything if she tries hard enough. Claressa Hinton, who had to repeat third grade, who was told by a teacher she could neither read nor write well, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That’s one degree more than that teacher, she’ll tell you if you ask.
“Whatever you’re determined to do, it’s a self thing,” she said. “Whatever intrinsic motivation you have, you’re the person who will determine how your story will end. You can’t tell how it will start, but you can tell how it will end.”
As a regional family liaison for the Carolina Family Engagement Center, a grant project housed in the SC School Improvement Council at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education, Hinton shares her wisdom with students, parents and teachers in the Midlands and Lowcountry. Her message of intrinsic motivation has strengthened students without parents, in poverty, in difficult neighborhoods. As a character coach at W.A. Perry Middle School in Columbia, she guided two troubled students from In-School Suspension (ISS) to become the valedictorian and salutatorian of their class at C.A. Johnson High. Thanks to her, W.A. Perry’s ISS numbers dropped so dramatically other schools came calling.
“You’d see her in a circle of ten kids,” said Scott Sayers, assistant principal at W.A. Perry. “She’d tell about her life, that she was a foster kid, and they could relate. She would talk about how to set goals and handle situations. We are dealing with what the community tells them to do – ‘somebody hits you, you hit them back.’ We have to go against the grain and tell them not to hit back. She was able to do that and be authentic with the kids.”
With CFEC, Hinton focuses more on parents, helping them learn how to support their children’s learning and development. She recognizes they often don’t understand exactly what their children need. As a parent, educator, and once-neglected child, she can instruct with authority.
“I explain to people that even though we don’t know all the things we should know when it comes to parenting, we can put our children in a position to win – if we give them the opportunity,” Hinton said.
Her first rule? Give them structure.
“That’s everything for children. If you develop good routines, stay on schedule, make sure they do their homework and don’t stay up late, they’ll learn best practices.”
What else? “Understanding the reason of why.” When you tell your children why it’s important to read, why academics are important, and what the results can be when you work hard in school, they’ll be more likely to try.
Parents need to develop relationships with their children’s schools. “Whenever you talk about real parent engagement, it’s not just showing up for Doughnuts for Dads. It’s about building relationships with teachers and other parents and knowing things like whether your child is reading at grade level and how to help them if they aren’t.”
At W.A. Perry, Hinton visited every child in their home to discern their situations outside school. That was 320 home visits annually, followed by individual behavior studies she developed for each student and gave to their teachers. After meeting with a child about problem grades or behavior, she’d keep the parents informed. When students did poorly, she’d accompany them to class. She knew that if you’re not in class, you can’t learn the lesson. And if you can’t learn the lesson, you can’t pass the test. Too much of that cycle and you won’t be promoted. That was her situation in the third grade, which she failed.
“It was devastating,” she said. “Miss Jones took me aside and said, ‘I want you to understand that when you get into the classroom, you have to perform, you have to block things out.’ But it wasn’t like I didn’t know the information; I wasn’t there to get the information. It was my mama’s fault that I failed. It was my daddy’s fault.”
Too intoxicated to get their children to school, Hinton’s parents gave her and her two brothers to a family member, who then relinquished them to the state’s Department of Social Services. Bouncing between foster homes, they eventually landed at Tamassee DAR School in Oconee County. Coming from Rock Hill, the Hinton children were different immediately.
“When I first walked in, I wondered why everybody was looking at me,” she said. “I thought it was because I was new, but I realized it was because I was different. I wondered, ‘where’s all the Black people?’ We didn’t realize Black and White was an issue until we moved to Tamassee.”
Now, with a master’s degree from Webster University in human resource development and 14 years helping children and families, Hinton knows they were placed somewhere that wasn’t “culturally relevant.” When children are taken from their normal setting and placed where nothing is normal, adjustment and success will be harder. That’s one reason young Claressa had no dreams of being a movie star or astronaut or millionaire. Her dream was keeping her and her brothers together.
“I was focused more on surviving,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think about dreams because there was so much going on at one time.”
Building a dream
As a parent, Hinton communicates often with her daughter’s teachers, knows her grades, and encourages her to work hard but to enjoy life. She wishes she’d had that kind of committed encouragement. Grades weren’t important to her, and no one told her they should be.
But she had a gift for basketball, and people who helped. Coach John Jansen wouldn’t accept her lackadaisical comment about not going to college. He made her see that if she wanted to make a home for herself and her younger brother – by then their older brother was elsewhere – she’d need more than an associate degree. She’d need a degree from a four-year college.
“He was so upset. He said, ‘you know what your circumstances are.’ It didn’t dawn on me, but he was right. He was trying to get me to understand to dream bigger.”
Math teachers Mark MacLean and Adam Hopkins “cared about who I was as an individual,” and science teacher Patricia Smith was so “dynamic” she found herself loving that subject. Her grades improved and she earned an A in something besides P.E.
Still, Hinton didn’t pass the state’s high school exit exam in tenth or eleventh grades. Enter Laurie Edminster, who tutored her in English and writing for a year. On her third try, Hinton passed the exam with excellence, allowing her to accept a full athletic scholarship to Morris College in Sumter. She took a lesson she’s put into practice ever since – intentionally getting to know people and understanding them, just as some of her teachers and Coach Jansen had with her.
“I’m real big on building relationships,” she said. “It changes your setup.”
The teacher who told Hinton her reading and writing skills were lacking might be shocked to see the video of her holding up books she recommends for a child’s library. But there she is, presenting books from Dollar Tree, that children can use to improve reading and math skills, tell time and learn financial literacy. She wants to establish a partnership with that store to get book donations for the children she serves.
Hinton’s favorite book is Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Her seventh-grade teacher, Martha LeCroy, introduced it to her.
“She would say, ‘I understand you’re going through a lot of things,’ and refer to things that happened in the book. From it I understood that things change every day, that every flower doesn’t bloom at first, but eventually the fern would grow.”
She talks to children about Where the Red Fern Grows and about the deck of cards – how we can’t help the hand we’re dealt but we can help how we play it. She has become the guide her teachers and coach were to her.
“All it takes is one person to believe in you,” she says. “But you have to remember everybody’s not Team You. If you believe in you, it will happen. That doesn’t mean the journey will be easy and there’s no timeline for getting there.”
Hinton was 15 when she and her brother planned to return to their now-sober mother. But their mother got cancer and died the next month. Soon after, Hinton got spinal meningitis. It took her three months to recover. It was another crisis, another setback to endure.
But by then she’d absorbed the lessons from Where the Red Fern Grows, and her own intrinsic motivation had taken root. Her plan was clear: “I always said when I get to a place where I can help people, I will give them my very best.”
On a desk below her diplomas, Hinton retrieves a banner she made. “Change Agent” it declares in bright colors. That’s how she sees her role with the Carolina Family Engagement Center.
“It’s about planting seeds,” she said, referring to her favorite book. “When you’re planting seeds, you’re being impactful, and it takes more than one person to water a plant.”
She points to herself. “Everybody has poured into this plant,” she added, “and now it’s sowing seeds.”