“My mom told me, ‘People will talk about you until the day you die and even after you die. You just have to learn to prove them wrong and keep pushing,’” says Diamond Dortch, an elementary education major who will begin teaching reading at Bolton Edwards Elementary in August.
Refusing to let anyone or anything define her, Dortch heeded her mother’s advice and has been proving people wrong ever since.Born with cerebral palsy, Dortch did not walk until the age of 4. Once she took her first steps, it was on her tiptoes, and she had trouble maintaining balance. A developmental and motor disorder, cerebral palsy affects approximately 500,000 U.S. children and adults annually. Although the condition can have both mental and physical ramifications, Dortch’s condition was limited to a difficulty walking. Yet, it did not make her trek less arduous.
“They had to wait until my bones were a little more developed, so I had my first surgery at age 5 and the second surgery at 7,” she explains. “I also had to undergo about six or seven years of physical therapy.”
When it was all said and done, Dortch had knee extensions and a hip rotation, and a plate holds her hip together. She was also in a body cast for three weeks, something that proved difficult for her.
“I couldn’t move at all. Then, I was in a wheelchair for a long time,” she explains. “It really hit home for me seeing all of my cousins, brothers and sisters getting to play and be a child, but I was always in the hospital or in therapy.”
A Chicagoan, Dortch was homeschooled until she was able to walk comfortably with leg braces. Once she started classes at Brian Piccolo Elementary, the children teased and made fun of her because she was different.“I have to give credit to my second-grade teacher. She actually created this day around my disability and students were able to learn why I was the way I was,” she says.
It may have taken time for others to see past her impairment, but not Dortch. She immersed herself in academics and activities. “After my sophomore year in high school, my disability was no longer a big factor,” she explains. “I was class president, captain of the debate team for two years. I was in a lot of organizations.”
With a 3.9 GPA, Dortch was also named valedictorian of her high school’s 2015 graduating class.“That was something I always wanted to accomplish. It was a big moment for me just because I know a lot of people counted me out because I was disabled,” she says.
“Never forgetting where you come from” was the theme of her commencement address. Dortch says she wanted her class to remember their foundation and that they needed to be resources to each other in the future.
“Even now, we go back to our old high school and talk to the seniors and freshmen about where we were then versus where we are now,” she states.
And now, Dortch is preparing to graduate, with honors, from JSU on Saturday, May 4, with a job already locked down. It is a position that arose as she participated in a mock interview with an administrator from the Hinds County School District. Seemingly impressed, “He stopped me in the middle of the interview and said he wanted me to meet a principal,” she explains.
The next day, Dortch was in an interview with Lashurn Wiliams, principal of Bolton Edwards Elementary.
“It’s that moment where everything you’ve been working toward for the past four years is coming to fruition. This isn’t a dream anymore. This is about to be my career,” says Dortch, who later accepted the offer.
‘I urge people to connect with people’
Reflecting on her time at JSU, she describes it as one filled with ups and downs, but overall “amazing.”
“My freshmen and sophomore years were some of my best years,” says Dortch. “My freshmen year, I got to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, for free thanks to Jackson State.”
During the visit, she and her classmates played soccer with local children and treated them to a lunch of sandwiches and fruit. Dortch says their appreciative nature and the overall trip moved her to tears.
“That place kind of checked me as a person, not to say that I was conceited or ungrateful, but it brought me back to reality about the things that I’m afforded here in America,” she says.
Dortch would receive another chance to use her passport when, as a sophomore, she spent a week in Tokyo, Japan, in the study abroad program.
“I learned a lot. They wanted me to come back and teach through their (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. I did consider it, but I would like to know the language better before I live abroad.”
Instead of Japanese, Dortch is starting with mastering sign language, having taken ASL (American Sign Language) classes I and II at Jackson State. She says she wants to get an ASL license and be a translator. Her desire stems from working with children at the Mississippi School for the Deaf. Dortch asks that others also learn ASL.
“I met some amazing kids. I feel like we can miss these opportunities because people feel like ‘I don’t need to accommodate people. People need to accommodate for me,’ says Dortch, before adding that less than one percent of deaf education teachers are African American.
“So all of these children who are deaf and African American are being taught by teachers who don’t look like them or connect with them.,” she says. “So I urge people to connect with people from different cultures and backgrounds.”
Another highlight of Dortch’s experience at JSU, she says, is joining the HBCUs Outspoken Arts Collective as a freshman. The organization includes creatives ranging from rappers and music producers to graphic designers and spoken-word artists.
“I’ve been a member for four years. In elementary and high school, I was in a spoken-word academy, and that’s where I was first introduced to poetry and spoken word,” she shares. “I wanted to find that same thing here because poetry is a way for me to express how I feel, so when I saw Outspoken hosting a talent show, I was like, ‘OK, these are my people.’”
However, Dortch says the group is more like family, and it showed when she lost her grandmother a week before finals in spring 2017.
“I felt like I was ready to go. I wasn’t trying to come back (to school). I felt like it wasn’t worth it. The one thing that my grandmother wanted was to see me graduate,” says Dortch, pointing out that her mother and grandmother tagged-team raising her.
Outspoken members rallied around the aspiring teacher, and reminded her that she had goals and life could not stop because her grandmother passed away.
“Outspoken kept me here. They became one of the reasons that I stayed,” says Dortch, who went from vice president to president of the organization in 2018.
She is also the director of diversity engagement for the Campus Activities Board and brought events like wheelchair basketball and Nigerian Independence Day to JSU because she says she wanted to make sure people from different backgrounds felt included. For the last two years, she has held the vice president of programming position.
Doing ‘something bigger’ than herself
Aside from being a leader, the 22-year-old is always on the move. She just completed a semester of student teaching at Raines Elementary where she worked from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. instructing second-graders, creating lesson plans and undergoing professional development. Dortch would then go to her job teaching youth at the Boys and Girls Club on Sykes Road.
New to student teaching, Dortch says she was only slightly nervous, “because our education department does a very good job of making sure that we have enough experience before we get to that point.”
To plan out her busy days, Dortch says she had to chart out her time, stay organized and stop procrastinating. “That was a big deal for me, too. This year, I could not procrastinate,” says the JSU honor student with a 3.7 GPA.
And somehow, Dortch managed to pledge Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. in the process.
“I loved what the organization was about. Every time I saw them they were doing something bigger than themselves,” she says.
A sorority adviser previously told her, “If you want to become Greek make sure the letters don’t make you, but you make the letters.” The saying stuck with the spring 2019 initiate, and she passes on the same advice to others interested in Greek life.
‘Thee I Love’
Currently, Dortch says she is looking forward to having her “own classroom” next fall when she will officially be a JPS educator. As a child, she recalls frequently playing teacher with her family. “My brothers were my students. My cousins were principals. It’s something that has always been inside of me.”
She thanks Jackson State University’s elementary education program for ensuring students are certified by the time they graduate. “Because it makes us more marketable to employers,” she explains, then adds that Jackson State is a diamond in the rough and others need to take advantage of what the school has to offer. She also urges freshmen to get involved, reminding them that “it’s not about what you know, but who you know.”
It is evident that the girl once teased for being different has forged a different outcome than what others may have expected. The only remnants of the cerebral palsy that Dortch battles are a slight limp. It didn’t stop her then, and it shows no signs of stopping her now.
In ten years, she wants to be the U.S. Secretary of Education. “Educators can’t stay in the classroom. It’s those who have leadership qualities that have to go outside the classroom and fight for students and teachers in another arena.”
And if anyone needs someone to fight for them, it looks like they have a champion in Dortch.