Also read the interview with the other School Board candidate for this position, Scott Heinze.
I sat down with Dexter (to talk about just this) at the Forza coffee near 21st and Pearl. It was a [Monday] evening, and the place was almost empty when I walked in. Gordon was waiting for me in one of the comfy chairs, wearing a suit jacket over his campaign T-shirt. Unfortunately, I had to move him to a less comfortable location in order to be sure my recording device would pick up everything, but he was good humored about it, and when properly arranged at the back of the café the recording worked perfectly.
Meeting with Dexter one-on-one was interesting because of all the candidates I interviewed he came across most differently in a private setting. This is not to say that he seemed like a different person, in both public and private he has always been kind, confident, and funny, but when I’ve seen Gordon in front of a crowd his voice boomed and he spoke with a drive and a purpose. He has a Jamaican accent, and it is incorporated perfectly into the cadence of his speech, holding your attention as his voice booms across the room. Gordon has taught public speaking classes, and knows how to send a clear message to his audience.
At Forza Gordon was not giving me a campaign speech. He relaxed, he was soft-spoken, he let his mind wander a bit more and found the point of what he was saying while telling me his stories, rather than speaking with the intent mission of the campaign.
The only moment when he slipped up, and fell into campaign mode, was when he asked that question. “My father was a fisher man, my mother was a vender. How did I get to be at the University of Puget Sound as a distinguished professor?”
I’ve heard him ask it rhetorically to crowds, and he always gives the same answer “Public education.” Sure, this is nice when you’re running for school board, and he does have great experiences from public education that changed his life, but while I sat across from Gordon he told me a much broader story, with many more details, that gave me a much better idea of how he ended up where he is today. Our time was limited, so I never got the full story of how he came here to Washington, started up his family, or was hired by the University of Puget Sound (UPS), but I did learn a lot about his character, and how he views the world.
Gordon was born and raised in Jamaica, as part of a very large family (he was number 7 of 14! With two more half siblings born after his mother passed).
“It was a household where politics, religion, culture, sports, always right at the competitive edge. Because you’ve got to find a competitive edge, whether who could eat the fastest, who could sing the best, who could do the most tricks. That’s when I found my sister could put her tongue at the top of her nose, found out one sister could wiggle her ear. Oh, we did it all.”
This natural competitiveness was fostered by his family, and it was one of two experiences in his early childhood that shaped his future.
“I was in public school, in grade 5, when Phyllis Jennings grabbed me by the hand – and she was not gentle – and she said ‘You have something, and you are going to shape up’” Phyllis Jennings was his 5th grade teacher – and Dexter used her as the example of how a teacher should make a difference in a child’s life. She was not willing to watch him fail. “That was part of my first memory of an awakening and I started shaping up from there.”
But his natural competitiveness also played a role.
“I remember that before that, I think there were 66 children in our class, and Ina Fulga* and I tied for 33rd, and she said I copied from her work! That was one motivation, because as I came to be aware of myself, I am a very competitive person. And so once Ina Fulga said that, I knew that was the last time I was going to share company at that level. From that point on the lowest I ever performed in any class was 4th. I was always struggling for 1st or 2nd.”
Gordon really loved his public education in Jamaica, and he wasn’t shy of saying that Jamaica on the whole took public education more seriously than many school districts here in America. Because Jamaica is part of the British school system, they label levels differently, and I won’t lie when I say I didn’t really understand them all. But the “O” level was the end of high school, and according to Gordon, the content learned in “O” level was like going through community college, rather than just high school.
“Especially towards the end of high school, your life is about school… In the British system, when you get from O level, the way teachers talk about O level you know that your life is going to end if you don’t pass it… In Jamaica high schools, the principle comes through every class that’s preparing for O levels you get that stern lecture, and you are scared,” he chuckled while he said this, “I’m telling you, you are scared. The pressure is so immense.”
Gordon appreciates that his pubic education demanded so much of him. He appreciates that his elementary teacher called him out on not doing well enough, and that the culture of his high school didn’t allow for drop outs or incompletes. He liked that his principal took the time to visit each class and prepare them for their future. This could be because Gordon was competitive by nature, and the teachers were challenging him to do better. Even though he did end up incredibly busy, that didn’t mean he didn’t have any fun. Any average day looked like:
“When I was in high school I was doing A work on subjects, and school ended at 3:15, and then I had soccer or cricket practice, and that would take me to 6:30, and then it took at least 2 hours to get home, because I had to walk about 3 miles to the train station, take the train 15 miles, and then we may or may not get a ride – what we call a robo, a taxi that picks up to it’s full – to go the last three miles home. Most times it was running or walking… Towards the end of high school it was midnight before I was done with my math and my Spanish homework.” I asked him if everyone’s commute to and from school was similar, and while he said yes he chuckled as he qualified it a bit, “you’re not rushing home, there were things to talk about after practice, with your friends”
This was pretty much the end to the “public education” story. This was the foundation of his education and experience that set him up for his future. I would like to contend, though, that he learned just as much in the next few years of life when he shared a universal experience: entering the real world.
“I went to work straight after high school. I had expected to get a job in a government office, and instead I ended up on the wharf, and it was a very interesting job because I walked into this job and the people in the office – these are people who are not… Not… Well, it’s kind of a rough set up… There’s a lot of rough and tumbling, tough guys. Here was I, a young kid out of high school, walking into this office declaring that I was a Christian, and the guys in the office said we’ll give you two weeks to give up. That’s tough. So that was my introduction to the world of work.”
He stayed at the wharf for a couple of months before being able to move onto somewhere else. “As it turns up, I was wrongly placed. Did I ever feel wrongly placed!”
Next he worked in the “clock of courts” (which in America would be called the DA’s office). “That was one of my passions, law. I actually began to learn law, and eventually started prosecuting what we call simple, petty cases, what petty sessions court. I moved up to where I was presenting cases in court.”
“I learned it in the system, and in fact it was an interesting thing because at the time I planned and hoped to go to law school. The head judge at the time identified about five of us. She said, her name was resident magistrate Madge Morgan*… She said, that she wanted to talk to the law school… She proposed to the law school that they accept us, five of us, in the law program based on our experience working in the courts. And they said no. We had to matriculate through the traditional pattern of getting A levels, which is part of the British system.
“[Madge Morgan] was mad, and I was disappointed, and I think that’s when I turned away from law… The reason she was hopping mad and we were disappointed and turned away… is that we were the ones who trained the graduates from the law school how to do the actual work in the courts. And so, it was infuriating.”
“So, I left law school when a job opportunity came up to train to become an air traffic controller… I just saw a job that paid better than the one I had and offered training. And so I said, you know, still sort of disillusioned from what I thought was going to be a good law prospect, I went for the air traffic control position. And, I think I liked it because of the challenge it turned out to be. The first thing is that going to air traffic control school, the failure grade is anything below 75% on anything that you do… In the training, which was six months, you do an exam at the end of six weeks, every Friday. So every Friday somebody would not be coming back, some bodies would not be coming back. So that was the challenge.”
We didn’t discuss what happened next in his life, but I was fascinated by this string of early jobs Gordon took on. I loved seeing that dealing with awkward job situations, high hopes, disenchantment, and new opportunities were universally situations. I enjoyed hearing his story because I found it very relatable.
Not too long after these events Gordon started traveling, and eventually decided to go back to school. As a world traveler, I could also relate to being put in a situation vastly culturally different than what I knew.
“The first time I came to America in 1980 I came to a conference. My most striking memory of the conference was how wasteful people were of food. I was out a conference, and you know how people run conferences, a big spread of food and half of it is eaten and the other half was thrown out. I found that so hard to get over that.”
“And then I had a first experience with the person who was checking in people for the conference. And this young women said to me, ‘Is it true that they don’t wear shoes in Jamaica and they live intrees?’ And I said to her, ‘and you know, the sort of clothes that I’m wearing, I bought it just to come here.’ The conference was two weeks and I came back to here at the end of the two weeks and I said ‘you’ve got to education yourself about the world. What you said to me, I could not believe the level of your ignorance, and I chose to play with you.’ That was my introduction, but that was only visiting.”
Not all of his experiences were that somber, some problems were more light hearted, like dealing with cold winters in Illinois after growing up on an island where 70 degrees was considered cold. “I came to Wheaton, Illinois, [in July] and the temperature was 95 and that was just fine. Then jump three weeks, towards the end of August, the temperature dropped below 70. I was freezing to death… if the temperature gets below 80 we put on our sweaters… I am used to living, swimming, in 90 degrees…. Between 82-90 degrees, that’s my entire life.”
Living as a student in America was difficult for other reasons. For people who travel, it’s easy to understand what it means to have “culture shock” from being in a place that has different customs and ways of living and communicating with one another. This was something Gordon struggled with as an exchange student.
“At Wheaton College I found it quite a challenge to get football in the culture. I just felt externalized from the culture… I was educated; I read about it, in Jamaica I hosted many, many American groups. I hosted them, took them all over the country. I traveled here, spent almost all of my summers throughout the 1980s in New York. But spending summers and living, especially that summer in New York – New York is a different country than Illinois, a very different country – so it was quite a culture shock.”
“One of the things about living in the islands is that you’re keenly aware from very early in your life that you’re part of a larger world, so that sense that a larger world is there and that it’s necessary allows for a kind of upbringing which keeps one in touch with the rest of the world, as part of the global family.”
“First it was the BBC world service, so world news was part of every Jamaican household. We had radio saturation, not so much television, but radio saturation. At 8:00 am every morning almost every house you passed anywhere in Jamaica – BBC, world service, the news. And it would be the news of the world. That oriented me to have a global perspective. So in that sense it was only the sort of specificity of day to day living in U.S. culture that I had to learn to adjust to, and I had to learn to adjust to living indoors, because in Jamaica you go in at night to sleep. I used to step out of my house in the morning, and did not need to go back into night. That is every day of the entire year. It’s kind of a strange thing to have to go and stay inside.”
Gordon had always loved sports, though, and he was able to connect to other students at his school through this shared interest. “The way I got into the culture was on the soccer field, that’s how I began to really learn U.S. culture.”
Gordon says he has “adapted” to US culture. He uses the word “soccer” here, as well as our words for the legal and school systems, but when he goes back to Jamaica it’s back to playing “football” and using British English. There are other ways that you can tell he has embraced American culture. He now has dogs that are indoor pets (and has embraced the American tradition of loving/spoiling his pet), that come with their own cute story of how his kids made badgered him for years about getting pets, and he finally gave in and fell in love.
Now, after being active in Tacoma’s education community for awhile, Gordon is running for Tacoma School Board. While he’s been an activist and an organizer before, running for office is presenting new challenges.
“I have been, I like to think of myself as a public person, I’ve been a public person for a long time. I tell people that at a deep level I am a shy person, but I am a very public person. In all of my work, I was telling my friends that I think from about age 12 I’ve been a community organizer. I organized my little friends to start playing soccer instead of cricket. From there we organized a community league, which became one of the first community soccer leagues in Jamaica, and one of the most successful. It’s had some fits and starts, but we started in, I think 1974, and it’s still going. So, I’ve always done that, so that part of it [running for office], but the judgment part is the one that I’m learning.
“It’s quite humbling to approach people and say, ‘hi my name is Dexter Gordon, I’m running for Tacoma School Board Position 3 and I’d like to ask for your vote.’… You approach some people and they tell you with their eyes and their bodies that they don’t want you to engage them and you have to learn that. And that’s a kind of rejection that as the candidate you have to learn to not personalize, and so that’s the piece that I’m learning.”
“For me, It has been an absolutely fascinating experience, learning about the community from an entirely different perspective. I have been at the University of Puget Sound, and I’ve been quite active in the schools organizing different things, but never from this perspective. I’ve been a doorbelling to help somebody else; I’m very comfortable for example raising money for other people. Making the request for yourself is different.
“There’s also a side to it where, when you are a candidate, some people are ready with the darts, but some people are ready with a kind of respect that says ‘god bless you,’ that says ‘good for you’ that says ‘I appreciate that you are putting yourself out there.’ When they say putting yourself up there they say they understand.”
Fun facts about Dexter Gordon:
*I may not have spelled names marked with a * correctly