TRIBUTE TO DENISE WILLIS JONES
Today my heart should be heavy, it’s not. Today I should still be shedding tears, I’m not. I, like a host of others, should be saying goodbye to a friend, I don’t. I say, ”see you later girl”!
I met Denise and her sister, affectionately known as Dr. Donna, my freshman year at Oakwood College. After hearing me sing for the first time, they approached me with a decision they’d come up with, that I needed to sing their aunt Eleanor’s music. I had no idea who she was but they were most certain, I was up to the task. So they began sharing her music, I immediately fell in love, and the rest is history.
Denise Willis Jones taught my niece, Toi-Ann, who came to live with us, my adopted daughter, Orian, who constantly swears that her class was Denise’s favorite; and of course Armand and Imani, at Sligo Seventh Day Adventist School in Takoma Park, Maryland. We worked together for thirteen years. When you work together day after day, and sometimes weekends, you get to experience many sides of a person, both good and not always so good. However, after seeing both sides, you then must decide whether the relationship is worth continuing and whether good, outweighed bad. It most definitely was; it most certainly did. Sligo for the most part, was a family, with all its ups and some downs, and Denise Jones was a crucial piece of that puzzle.
Denise loved and respected her students, contemporaries, administrators, and parents consistently. She didn’t always understand the many peculiarities encountered, but she loved us anyway. And we loved her! She was not perfect and most certainly, neither were we. We were, however, family; a family who prayed, educated, grew, shared and yes, sometimes even fought together.
I remember Denise’s insistence in having a television in the upper-grade classrooms and offices during the OJ Simpson trials. Sligo was predominantly a school owned and run by people who didn’t always seek to understand those of us blessed by our Creator with shades of Brown and Black skin. I am reminded as we, along with the students watched particularly the final verdict and how we as Blacks cheered in the hallways, while many others looked on in disbelief. I remember how a dear Caucasian friend and colleague, went around to the Black teachers apologizing to us because of how we were treated historically and brought to a point of just needing to “win” one. Denise was insistent that a lesson is learned socially and spiritually, and on that day, it was. That day, we saw the good and not so good in us all. And we were able to talk through the differences.
My daughter Imani was her student during the 9/11 attacks. I don’t think anyone could have handled the horror of that day more professionally than Ms. Jones! She turned on that tv, I’m more than certain prayed, then proceeded to keep them as calm as possible while contacting parents and following protocol.
I remember her approaching me in the school hallway that led to her classroom, after she and then Principal, Bill Ruby, had already decided I should direct the middle school choir. Denise had enough faith in what God had given me, to trust I was who they needed to bring out the best in them. She wanted her students to experience what many of us do Sabbath after Sabbath, the joy of worship, different than theirs. They were invited to churches where they might never have gone, but for that choir. It was her vision and it proved right.
We joyed in the good times, together. We struggled through difficulties, together. And in the end, there was always love. When God’s Spirit seeps into the hearts of His children, only love remains. Denise was not just beautiful outside; she was more than someone who knew how and where to shop; Denise was a character builder. She was a Teacher! She chose to work in a place, where for many years, “we” weren’t welcomed, and yet she saw the need and the importance to be a “light”, to students as well as other educators, and even many parents. She will be sorely missed, but she most definitely made her mark on those of us privileged to know her.
She did what she could, when she could, for the time God gave her to do it.
Because I know who holds tomorrow, of this I’m sure: DENISE WILLIS JONES, “see you later girl!”