It was the story of a pair of young men separated by more than a century but charged with the same fierce drive to learn.
The story electrified a roomful of teachers and public officials gathered at the Omni International Hotel yesterday for the Baltimore Teachers Union's annual tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday.
Warning that racism and discrimination continue to slow black advancement, Therman E. Evans, the featured speaker, preached about two young men who overcame tremendous odds to get an education.
Mr. Evans, vice president of the CIGNA insurance company, warned teachers not to sell their disadvantaged students short:
"You may be able to measure a performance on a standardized test, but you cannot measure inspiration and you cannot measure perspiration and you cannot measure motivation."
He told the story of Jamie Parker, a young slave in South Carolina in the 1830s, in a time and place when it was illegal to teach blacks to read. Parker persuaded an educated, free black man who was passing through the area to teach him to read -- and both paid a heavy price for such defiance.
One night, white vigilantes discovered Parker and his tutor during a lesson, Mr. Evans said.
"And for his desire to learn to read, Jamie Parker was stripped and whipped on his back with a bullwhip, 39 times," Mr. Evans said. "The record indicates that each lash opened a wound on his back. "And just to reconvince him that black people were to remain in ignorance, his wounds were washed in salt water."
As for his tutor, "a black man, trying to teach a black boy to read -- hung by the neck until dead."
"This is the legacy of America," Mr. Evans said. "And this also points out the desire that we had to learn to read."
Fast forward to Philadelphia in the 1980s, where a boy named Kevin Jones was struggling against roadblocks of his own.
"When Kevin Jones was born in Philadelphia, his father left him, left the family," Mr. Evans said. "His mother raised him until he was age 15."
But at that point, "Kevin Jones' mother got hooked on crack and she went to the streets. Kevin Jones was left to fend for himself."
Undaunted, the boy held down two part-time jobs, got himself a room, fed and clothed himself, "went to school every single day," Mr. Evans said.
Kevin eventually graduated 22nd in a class of 600 and received a full academic scholarship to Pennsylvania State University.
"Kevin Jones knew the importance of an education," Mr. Evans said. "No mother, no father, just a black boy in a society left to fend for himself . . . a symbol of what's happening to us today."
Mr. Evans praised the role of committed teachers in making sure that children get the education they deserve.
"It's easy for this thing to get routine on a day-to-day basis," he said of teaching. "It is a major challenge and should not ever be taken for granted."
In the end, he said, teaching "is one of -- if not the most -- important professions we have in this society."