Hometown: University Place, Washington
Lives in: Tacoma, Washington
Nominated by: Clare McFadden
If I had to describe Sedia Bayard in just a word, I would say grateful. There’s so much more to the story, of course, but I can’t help but think that’s where her immense sense of joy comes from.
At the moment, Sedia is settling into a new home in Tacoma, Washington State, with her 12-year-old son, Ukweli, and husband, Nick—who she met in a line at Harvard! Together they’re a family of heart-driven thinkers, music makers and accidental Koi fish owners.
It’s been several years since Sedia summoned the courage to apply for Harvard’s Master in Education program (the very same one as our friend Clare McFadden), shocked herself by being accepted and hot-footed it to the other side of the country with Ukweli. Returning to her home state of Washington and thinking about her reach as a teacher beyond the classroom, she feels like she’s only just beginning to understand the potential that other people see in her.
Sedia is convinced we need to be more compassionate with one another and is determined to cultivate this in her own life—through conbersations with her son, listening with all her heart to the people around her and remembering, as she says, to ‘Be Sedia!’
Today you’re a teacher, a graduate of Harvard, a mum to your son Ukweli and just recently married to your husband Nick. What have been the biggest shifts for you? How have you changed?
I think the biggest difference between me now and me before is that I’m starting to realise the potential that other people see in me. I’ve always been a bit of a go-getter but now I’m starting to settle in myself a little more. I’m still working on it!
What do you think led to this coming to the fore?
Nick, my husband, helps me a lot with that. There was a funny thing that happened at the end of our time at Harvard. I was working on all these things and I was so stressed out about it that I couldn’t think. I had gone to the library and scoured the shelves for books that I thought would help me write all these papers. I had so many that I was carrying around this plastic bag of books in addition to my regular bag. One day, Nick just grabbed my hand and this bag of books, put it down, and said, ‘You don’t need this bag of books!’ He said, ‘You have everything right there.’ pointing to me. I remember leaving the books on his bed, I went to the library and that was the most I’d written in those couple of weeks.
And now we use that ‘bag of books’ a lot in life. We always laugh and say, ‘This is another bag of books,’ when we see something we’re kind of leaning on as a crutch, that’s holding us back.
And the other leading man in your life is your son Ukweli. Can you tell us more about him and your life together?
He’s changed everything for me. Well before Ukweli came into existence I had thought about my child and would think, Oh I want to save this for him. And I always pictured him as a little boy for some reason. When I was pregnant with him I never even questioned that he was a boy. So I think I always prepared for Ukweli. I really wanted him and was waiting for him.
I’ve put absolutely everything I have into raising my little boy. I am so proud of the human being he is. He’s a shining giant: such a kind, thoughtful, intelligent person.
How old were you when you had Ukweli? And how did parenting change when Nick entered your lives?
I had Ukweli at age 27. I married young (for these days), and I had Ukweli three years after that. I raised Ukweli alone from the ages four to ten. I’ve put absolutely everything I have into raising my little boy. I am so proud of the human being he is. He’s a shining giant: such a kind, thoughtful, intelligent person.
He is in seventh grade now. Girls have been telling him he has pretty eyelashes, wears nice shoes, is a science genius and should run for middle school president next year. I love it that he tells me all of that stuff and still holds my hand. He said he’s happy that I’m so nice to his friends and “genuinely interested.” Ukweli’s words. That’s who he is.
The biggest difference between my life now and my life before Nick is support…We are a great team, and one of my absolute favourite things is that the three of us know it.
Life as a parent before I met Nick was all I really knew, so I see more clearly now how challenging it really was. I see now that I must have been pretty tough to have accomplished a lot of what I did. Before Nick, I just did it all. Nick always tells me what an incredible mother he thinks I am. That means the world.
The biggest difference between my life now and my life before Nick is support. I have a huge support in my husband. We are crazy about each other, and we are also best friends and push each other to succeed—in everything. We help each other with everything. Ukweli knows he can solidly depend on both of us. I like that. We are a great team and one of my absolute favourite things is that the three of us know it.
As a teacher and a parent, what do you hope for Ukweli?
So many things! I want him to be his best and fullest self. I think that’s my biggest wish for him. I know that sounds really general but it’s true. And that’s why I try to give him every opportunity to manifest that. Since he was born I would follow him around. We’d go to the library, whatever he was interested in, whatever I could find. You know, from trains to carrying plastic body parts [laughs], I just followed his interests. I realised that was the best way for him to learn and he’d just soak it all up.
And, as a kid, that feeling of someone investing time with you is priceless, even if you don’t realise it at the time. Did you have people in your life as a child who also made you feel that worthy?
I had two English teachers who had a huge impact on me and both of them are named Cathy.
The first is Cathy Osborne, who happened to be the first black teacher I ever had. She’s an English teacher and I remember writing the word amongst in her class when I was thirteen. She was so horrified by that word because to her it was pretentious [laughs], and I realise now she just wanted me to be true to myself in my own writing. She was a huge influence when I was in Eastern Washington.
It’s really taboo to bring that word love into teaching, but I do, and I love that I’m able to take that risk.
And then I moved to Western Washington for high school and there was my other Kathy, Kathy Walker, who’s very much in my life still. We read the play A Raison in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, and we’d all read out loud and she would tell me how much she loved it. It was really about validation, I think, with her.
I know that that manifests with teaching my own students. The most important thing I can do is listen to them. That’s the biggest gift I can give my students—and valuing who they are. I think that’s why they trust me, because they know I really do love them and care about them. It’s really taboo to bring that word love into teaching, but I do, and I love that I’m able to take that risk. I don’t think I’d be as effective a teacher if I didn’t.
Funny that from a very young age people recognised your talent, but it’s only now that you’re starting to recognise your own potential. Why don’t you think you’ve been able to see it?
I think that I’ve been just so busy just living and trying to sort myself out [laughs]. My life is so different from that of my other family members. It’s like night and day. So a lot of the things that I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.
It’s been a different path for me to get to this point. And for a lot of other people who maybe have more resources or different family structures, it would be easier to get to this point. I also have a little boy so my journey has maybe been longer than it may have been for someone else.
Part of your journey has also included time in Liberia, where your parents are from. What led to you spending time there when you were younger?
So I was born in Washington State and my mum came to the U.S. [from Liberia] as an exchange student. She was already pregnant with me when she came to the U.S. and hid her pregnancy.
When I was two years old, my mum took me home [to Liberia] with who she calls her American parents (my white American grandparents) who were the people she lived with [on exchange].
I think we stayed for about two weeks [in Liberia]. Then, at the end of the two weeks she told them, ‘Well, the baby’s staying.’ And my American grandparents flipped out. They had me from day one and she was leaving me there!
I was in Liberia with my biological grandparents until the age of six. I started kindergarten and then went to a little catholic school, the same one that my mum and her siblings went to. My cousin was there, too, and my grandfather used to sing to us in the afternoon on the porch. The way he’d sing and weave all these stories in and stomp on the porch…those are my fondest childhood memories.
Do you still sing?
Oh yeah, definitely. Nick has two albums and he and Ukweli have an album together. It’s an album of children’s songs, very folky and blue grassy, called Wishing Well.
Yeah, so I sing on it too. And Nick, Ukweli, and I perform together at different events and festivals. We also often sing at different Unity churches. (Unity is the church we attend.)
What is it about music that you think brings people together? Because there is something otherwordly about it, isn’t there?
Wow, that’s a big question! I do not know the answer to that question but there is a spiritual aspect about music. I went to a very quirky teaching school, and we were taught something called the I, the Thou and the It. So the I is the teacher, or maybe it’s the student. And the Thou is the student, traditionally, and then the It is that other thing, or the thing that you’re working on together. So if you think of it that way it takes on more of a spiritual aspect, and I think music does the same thing. That we’re all kind of co-creating it, maybe? But definitely there is something.
What qualities do you now most admire in people? And who do you see them in?
I admire compassion and understanding of others. I admire that the most and I see it in our little family because we talk about it a lot and try to cultivate it in ourselves. Ukweli and I have always had these conversations his entire life about goodness and compassion. When he was little he’d always say, ‘Mama, let’s have a conbersation’ with a b instead of a v. So we have lots of ‘conbersations’ in our family. I love joy and laughing. I value that a lot.
Outside of your lovely family do you see those qualities a lot or do you wish there was more?
I wish there was more! This morning I watched a documentary about Mr Rogers. Do you know him and the children’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood? It’s very American. When I came back to America I used to tell people Mr Rogers was my dad! I fell in love with this children’s show about this really gentle man who was very slow and everything he did was very child-centred. This morning I was watching a documentary on him, and I just thought, How did I forget how huge an influence he’s had on my entire life?
I think remembering him helps centre me because he was so present in his life. It reminds me to be Sedia! It reminds me of all the things I value most. I often say Mr Rogers is my dad. (Still.) I say it jokingly—but I also mean it in a way.
He said, ‘Simple and deep are far more essential than complex and shallow,’ and I love that because it’s a great guiding principle in life. You can apply it to anything.
What kind of philosophies do you keep coming back to?
I heard a quotation by Mr Rogers this morning. He said, ‘Simple and deep are far more essential than complex and shallow,’ and I love that because it’s a great guiding principle in life. You can apply it to anything. I always tell my students explicitly that I’m trying to go narrow and not cover too many things. I don’t care how beautiful the lesson plan is, if we don’t get to a part of it we don’t get to it. But I really like that philosophy.
What do you wish we spoke more about?
I think love in general, in different aspects of life. Education, joy and conscious parenting, all the things we’ve spoken about!
No one knew I was applying to Harvard and he completely believed in me.
What I’m also curious about is the biggest risk you think you’ve taken so far…
The biggest risk I’ve taken so far is leaving my teaching position [in Washington State]. I was about one month away from tenure and I gave it up to go to Harvard. So that was my biggest risk: applying there, and believing in myself.
My little boy was only eight or nine when I was going there and he was with me 100%. He was my confidante. No one knew I was applying to Harvard and he completely believed in me. It takes a lot of guts for some reason. And then I got in and freaked out. I had to quit my job and I loved my job. I also had to take my son out of this amazing private school that I had worked so hard to put him through. We got rid of all of our furniture, everything, and moved to Boston and started afresh. There I was at Harvard with my son. Not many people had kids, even in grad school.
What were you hoping for?
I wanted to broaden my career opportunities and I wanted to broaden our prospects in the world. I said to Ukweli, ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ I wanted to go broader and I don’t even know what that means fully yet. I don’t know how that’s going to manifest but I believe that it will.
And you met Nick there, too!
Yeah, we met in a line! Do you know Robert X Fogarty who began Dear World? He’s a photographer who takes portraits of people with messages written on their bodies. He wanted to photograph Harvard students and one morning I walked into the library building and there was a big poster for his event. I hustled over to the Harvard Kennedy School, and Nick also went early. I heard someone say something to me and it was Nick being nosy and asking what I was going to write on myself.
We were both really shy, and he asked me out on a date because it felt wrong to say goodbye.
What did you write?
Mine said, ‘Teach mindfully and intentionally.’ I wanted to write it on my hands and arms and he said, ‘I think teach would look better on your chest!’ Then I said, ‘It’s ok, I trust you.’ I thought, It’s so strange, I don’t even know this guy. And then he just wrote across my chest. [laughs]
We were both really shy, and he asked me out on a date because it felt wrong to say goodbye. And that’s how I met my husband! We got married at Abraham Lincoln’s house in May.
People see the energy and they laugh when I say that my nature is to be quiet and shy. I really trained myself to speak publicly and overcome stage fright.
I have to ask, why were you so shy? Because you don’t strike me as shy…
People do say that! I am introverted and my nature really is to be quiet and shy. I take a lot of time for myself. It’s because I do this that I am able to be so energetic out in the world when I need to be. People see the energy and they laugh when I say that my nature is to be quiet and shy. I really trained myself to speak publicly and overcome stage fright. Teaching every day is excellent training for that.
What’s next on the cards for you and your family? What’s life like back in your home state?
After over sixteen years of teaching, I am now working on expanding my reach in education–beyond the classroom. I’d like to have a solid effect on both policy and progressive pedagogy, and I am currently working on that as well as my writing.
We are now in Tacoma, Washington. We live in a house we call the “Unique Hacienda” because that is how it was listed when we found it. It is unique, and the Koi fish we inherited with the house are thriving. It’s funny what a big deal it is when Ukweli goes out to feed the fish because Nick and I go, too. They are huge and brightly colored—and there are more in the pond than we originally thought. We had a flashlight out the other night and discovered about five little ones. We’re pretty happy fish owners. [Laughs]. I’m excited to be home for a while.
Things I Love
I love having the gift of teaching, being able to reach people the way I’ve been able to. I’ll always cultivate that.
I love my guys—Nick and Ukweli. They are two incredible human beings.
I love really great shoes and boots and having style—that is, knowing what I love and what works on me.