Small-town advantage

by Janna Virden

A small town provides a certain closeness. After all, families know families, businesses are not just run by people but by friends and teachers are not just seen at school, but rather are part of the community.

But for many young people there is a need to do something different, a need to get out from under the watchful eye that is also part of small town life. That’s what was on Tina Fletcher’s mind when she graduated 10 years ago from Morrilton High School.

“I was ready to go,” Fletcher said, adding that she just didn’t realize at the time what an advantage she had growing up in the small town of Plumerville and being part of the Morrilton community, how those connections she made would influence her direction in life.

Still in her 20s, Fletcher has interned in the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama and in the office of former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Emerging Leaders Program and the Southern Education Foundation. She was named the 2010 Teacher of the Year for Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C., and was asked to be part of Obama for America campaign. She has co-authored a book, “10 Steps to Succeeding at ANY College,” with her twin sister Trina Fletcher. She and her sister are also part of a French documentary that will focus on the 50th Anniversary on the March on Washington as well as young people who have overcome adversity to become successful. Filming recently took place at her home in Plumerville as well at MHS and Central High School in Little Rock.

Fletcher recently came back and spoke to the students at Morrilton High School about how they need to take advantage of the opportunities given to them by their local high school and community.

“Ten years ago, I was literally in the same place as these students,” Fletcher said. “I wanted to let them know that. Morrilton prepared me for every challenge I faced.” She told students to take the hard classes and listen to the advice of those trying to help. She said the South Conway County School District had great teachers and wonderful counselors who helped her start achieving her goals.

Fletcher was encouraged to take Advanced Placement classes in high school. At one point she said she wanted to drop one of the AP classes and went to the guidance counselor’s office. “I asked to drop the course, and my counselor said, ‘No.’”

At the time, Fletcher said she didn’t know how much those courses would help her in college. She earned a B.A. in political science and African American Studies from the University of Arkansas, and then went on to Harvard University where she earned an Ed. M. in teacher education.

Fletcher got a job teaching at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C. She said the school was one of the lowest performing schools in the district and almost 100 percent African American. She taught U.S. History and U.S. Government, but she said even though the school was located in the U.S. Capitol there was a disconnect with her students. She said that her students didn’t go to any of the Smithsonian museums or to see the monuments or other sites associated with the founding of the United States even though it was just a subway ride away and free to the public. She said they didn’t feel like this was their government. Fletcher wanted to change that mindset. “I loved teaching government in the capitol.”

Her enthusiasm and new approach to teaching earned her the honor of being named the 2010 Teacher of the Year.

During her second year of teaching, Fletcher had an opportunity to go and intern in the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama. Fletcher took a sabbatical from teaching and went to work for the White House. She was one of 10 interns and their primary job was to do advance work for some of the First Lady’s events. “Mrs. Obama is really phenomenal, full of energy and so positive,” Fletcher said.

She said the First Lady would tell her interns not to put her on a pedestal, that she was just like them. Fletcher was impressed with Mrs. Obama “not only as an African American, but as a woman. I could look at her and see her upbringing was so similar to mine.”

Her work at the White House landed her a position in the Obama for America campaign. She said she got a call to help with the re-election effort. “I just couldn’t say no.” Fletcher worked in D.C. and the surrounding areas, and when President Obama was re-elect
ed, she said, “It was so exciting because I knew I helped.”

Recently, she worked as the manager of community investment for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. It was a job in which the main focus was to help raise funds and awareness for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

In her short time since graduating Morrilton High School, Fletcher has done a variety of different things professionally. Even though she is still young, she has grown old enough to realize how important life is in a small town. She is grateful for all the help she received and hopes others will see what can be done if they are just willing to try. She has spoken to thousands of students in high schools and at universities on the importance of education and using the opportunities that are given to them.

Fletcher said a life lesson she learned from the First Lady was when Mrs. Obama told her interns, “Always remember to reach back.”