Story by Marianne Salza
Cynthia Grant-Carter has been a Boston Public Schools teacher since the late 1970s, empowering her students to voice their opinions, and be courageous, responsible, generous people. Although the Dorchester resident retired in 2021, she serves as a substitute nearly every day of the week, starting each morning with gratitude (and a chocolate chip muffin).
“Give me the strength and patience to deal with what’s going to face me,” Grant-Carter prayed softly. “Help me to listen before I react. Protect me traveling back and forth.”
Grant-Carter has predominantly taught in elementary schools, in grades 1-5, with a concentration in second and third grade. At the beginning of her career, she worked at elementary and high schools in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Roslindale.
“It was good because I got to see what was happening at each school, the different styles of teaching, and the ways headmasters run their particular schools,” said Grant-Carter, who has been a fixture in East Boston’s Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School (PJK) for three decades.
Uninterested in soap operas and daytime television, Grant-Carter cringed remembering the quiet first two weeks of her retirement. She did enjoy purging her home of 30 years, and donating items that she was no longer using to The Salvation Army. Retirement also afforded her more quality time to distribute home cooked meals to neighbors at a local church.
“You have to keep your mind active,” advised Grant-Carter, who began noticing the gentrification of her neighborhood, with the integration of young business professionals and families. “Otherwise you become isolated from what’s happening in the community.”
Grant-Carter realized that she must return to her passion: teaching.
“If you love what you’re doing, no matter what the obstacles may be, do it with love,” Grant-Carter urged. “Mom said, ‘God has given everyone a talent. Once you find what it is, the resources will be there. Talent doesn’t develop overnight. People will come into your life and help and support you through the process.’ That’s a community.”
Grant-Carter instructs through hands-on activities. She aspires to provide students with real-life experiences, and implores them to ask questions.
“I try to break down what life is about, so they can understand on their terms,” explained Grant-Carter. “Appreciate what you have and be exposed to different types of living.”
The adventurer enjoys delving into the beauty and history of diverse cultures, avidly sharing her discoveries and photographs in the classroom.
“I love to travel. It makes me appreciate what we have,” revealed Grant-Carter, who has vacationed with friends in five continents; and most recently visited Dubai. “When I went to China, I didn’t realize that black people – slaves – helped build the Great Wall.”
Grant-Carter encourages students to be grateful for their food, clothes, warm homes, and the love of family. She emphasizes how receiving an education – with the advantage of having school supplies and resources available to them — is a gift.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be kind to people — not because you want something in return — but because you’re doing it from the kindness of your heart,” listed Grant-Carter.
Grant-Carter advises her students to strive to be their best selves; especially while exploring during field trips, as they are representing the school.
“I’m teaching them that manners go a long way,” asserted Grant-Carter, who demands that girls and boys behave as respectful ladies and gentlemen.
The self-proclaimed field trip queen believes that it is important to expose students to new educational activities throughout Boston, such as meeting former president, Barack Obama, at the Reggie Lewis Center, in Roxbury, during his candidacy.
“I have eyes on the back of my head,” turned Grant-Carter, ruffling her hair; then leaning forward with stern eyes. “I say, ‘I want you to listen. When I was growing up, the community took care of everybody. Everyone looked after each other. One day, I was outside, playing with friends, acting like a fool. When I went upstairs, my grandmother knew I wasn’t being good, and that my mouth was awful. That’s what it means that I have eyes on the back of my head.”
Seeking support and caring for members of one’s community are vital to Grant-Carter. She became an instant mother of her then 10-year-old niece, Shauneequa, with the passing of her twin sister. It was then that she fully realized the value of her compassionate neighbors.
“It was tough, but we made it through. I thank God for my neighbors,” Grant-Carter shared. “You cannot take the journey by yourself.”
Grant-Carter has been a writing and soccer coach for grades 3-5 for 18 years with American Scores, a before and after school enrichment program for urban youth. She also teaches social, emotional learning through community service, such as handing bagged lunches and poems to the homeless in Central Square while on route to the soccer field at LoPresti Park.
“I always remember a line from a student’s poem: ‘Justice is doing the right thing when no one is looking at you,’” recited Grant-Carter, who boasted that two of her students had competed in a national poetry competition in New York City. “That’s powerful. This student was 10, and quiet. Through poetry, he was able to express himself.”
Having taught three generations of PJK students, Grant-Carter has developed lasting relationships with families. The most rewarding aspect of her career is when she meets a former student.
“You never know who you’re going to touch. Sometimes if I’m walking down the street in East Boston, I’ll hear, ‘It’s Ms. Grant-Carter! How are you doing?” shouted Grant-Carter. “It brings me joy that they remember me. Recently, one student saw me. He gave me a hug. He is teaching math at East Boston High School. Three of my former students are in his classroom. He made my day.”
Grant-Carter was raised by her grandmother, Jane, mother, Colentary Marie, and step-father, John, in Harlem, and The Bronx, New York. Dedicated and selfless, they are Grant-Carter’s role models, and the inspiration for the morals she instills in her students.
“They were helping their community while they were working. I try to bring their habits and traditions to the next generation,” said Grant-Carter. “You have to work for what you need. Keep pushing. Be strong and patient. Life isn’t instant gratification. If you have faith in yourself, plant the seed, water it, and it will come.”
Grant-Carter believes that black history should be incorporated into daily curriculum, and celebrated throughout the year. People, Grant-Carter asserts, make history every day when they advocate for justice.
“Black history is every day,” said Grant-Carter, frankly. “We live it. We see it. The people who invented the clock, hairbrush, computer chip, and traffic light were black. We didn’t get credit for a lot of the inventions because we weren’t allowed to get patents.”
Grant-Carter recommends Boston Public School teachers of color to contact the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts for support and resources.
The most important lesson that Grant-Carter has taught her students is to remain focused during life’s challenges.
“Believe in God, and have faith that things are going to be okay,” maintained Grant-Carter. “Dream, believe, and achieve. There is always something good, even from a bad situation.”