Reflections from Vilma France, Pioneering Pathways Teacher

Teacher Stories

Vilma France is one of those teachers.

You know the kind. The one who, without even saying a word, manifests with an appearance, facial expression, and body language, a standard for excellence, and projects through a no-nonsense tone, that anything less is unacceptable.

Starting on Saturdays beginning in 1993, Pathways to College — in its infancy as a program of A Better Chance — set its mission: to instill in students a strong sense of cultural awareness, social consciousness, and self-confidence, while exploring the worlds of college and career, and building critical thinking skills. (In 2003, Pathways became an independent nonprofit organization.) France, a veteran of the Greenburgh School District in Westchester County, New York, was asked to help develop the program and guide the first groups of students.

At her former high school, France was renowned for teaching ethnic studies, literature, and social studies. She had traveled to Kenya as a Columbia University Fulbright Scholar, developed an “I Am Somebody” program for 8th graders, traveled to Zimbabwe to enrich her knowledge of African history and culture, and taken schoolchildren on an educational and cultural heritage journey to Senegal.

Who could’ve been a better choice?

And what better way to properly commemorate the origins of Pathways to College, as it grew from a program into an independent, nonprofit national organization, than to highlight France’s crucial contributions?

The instant the first Pathways students encountered “Miss France,” as they fondly remember her, she cut a firm, yet empathetic figure. She was smartly dressed and armed with a veritable library of books inside the gray sedan she routinely drove from her home in White Plains, NY, some 45 miles away.

“I had boxes of books from my classroom and other used books,” recalls France, now 94. “I brought anything I thought the kids would be interested in.”

France took some of the books inside the classroom to teach. After each session she walked students to her car, opened the trunk, and gave books away.

Inside the classroom, France would introduce a theme of the day and then engage the students, from varying grades, academic skill levels, and economic backgrounds — from as close as Northern New Jersey and as far away as Brooklyn — to engage in robust discussion.

“It was a very collegial vibe,” France begins. “A lot of the kids didn’t know each other. I would break them into study groups. I emphasized the importance of journaling, understanding history and culture, and understanding culturally, who they were. I taught them George Orwell’s writing from his novel, 1984, ‘He who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

For Zakiyyah Cobb, an inaugural Pathways to College student, the knowledge France was dropping was new to her and some of her peers, who had neither heard of nor been challenged to contemplate and analyze the topics being discussed. Cobb also saw in France, a teacher she could closely connect with.

“Miss France was the cultural aunt I didn’t have,” Cobb, now 45, reminisces. “She was very strong, like a matriarch. She could sit you down and tell you about your roots and introduce you to cultural practices like Kwanzaa.”

To say France’s immediate influence on Cobb was profound would be a massive understatement — especially when she was in the raw stages of grieving after a family trauma.

“My mother had been murdered,” Cobb somberly recalls.

“After I lost her, I lived with my grandmother. But because of what happened to my mother, my grandmother was emotionally unavailable to me and didn’t have time to teach me certain things about life, like social skills and etiquette, which is important for teenage girls. Miss France filled that void. You knew she cared. She was a teacher who today would be called a ‘warm demander.’ She had that ‘I don’t play,’ look on her face. She’d say things like, ‘You can’t let opportunities pass you by and feel sorry yourself.’ She was there to share everything she was, to help shape us. Her confidence imprinted on me.”

Cobb eventually earned associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. In addition to becoming a certified paralegal, she currently teaches at a Northern New Jersey elementary school.

“Most kids I teach are from a lower socioeconomic background and what I do today for my kids in the classroom, I do because of Miss France,” says Cobb, whose teaching forte also includes social studies, and whose oldest child recently graduated from college. “She reminds me of who am I as a teacher now. She was the authoritarian in the room — but the authoritarian you, as a student, love.”

Cobb says she and her peers were constantly captivated by Miss France’s lessons, which often were driven by critical examinations of African American history.

“In November, I had a lesson about the question of the ballot or the bullet, quoting Malcolm X,” France recalls. “I gave a history of voting in America, and the history of obstacles of black people to vote. I taught about how black men were once considered by the government to be three-fifths of a man. The students were quite surprised by that. I also taught them about black contributions to the English language and the arts.”

After Pathways’ first few years, France departed as the number of other committed volunteer teachers joined the program, which was exponentially growing. The expansion continuously necessitated new, larger learning spaces. Eventually Pathways found a home in one of Newark’s largest churches. By then, the program had expanded to other parts of New Jersey and the country.

France’s formidable legacy lives on. She says that for years after teaching Pathways students, she got letters from some of them, sharing with her their collegiate and post-collegiate experiences, and thanking her for being such a strong presence in their lives.

Along France’s journey as an educator, in addition to all the children she has served, she also has raised her own three children and has helped raise a grandchild. She still believes in the Pathways to College mission and says the organization is needed now more than ever.

“The schools can’t and don’t do it all for children,” France says.

“There’s important information that’s not available to everybody. That information affects a person’s core and attitude, which affects skills. You have to supplement those skills. Pathways provides all that.”