Be like Omolaja

immigrant studentsMr. Omolaja is a presence.*

The other day, I was in the cafeteria with Mr. Omolaja, and our radar went to Manuel, a student with  his pants halfway down his thighs.  He was slouching.

Mr. Omolaja gestured for Manuel to come over. Manuel ambled over cowboy-style, the only option for walking given the level of his pants.

Mr. Omolaja gestured to his own belt, which was at his waist.

“Manuel, pull your pants up,” he said.  “Be like Omolaja.”

Manuel pulled his pants up.  He also tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that he adores Mr. Omolaja.

Let me be clear: everyone adores Mr. Omolaja.

Mr. Omolaja teaches math and also our dean, which means he handles all behavior infractions that go beyond the classroom.  He also maintains order while our 370 students are eating lunch in the cafeteria.

The other day, I watched Mr. Omolaja start his Geometry class.  He simply stood in front of the room, arms folded, while the students scurried to get their books and get into their learning groups.  He said nothing.  They were ready to start the class in 30 seconds.

No reminders, reprimands, begging or cajoling from Mr. Omolaja.  Just a presence that commanded.

Mr. Omolaja is from Nigeria.   He studied metallurgical engineering in Moscow, Russia on a scholarship, and speaks fluent Russian in addition to English, Hausa, and Yoruba.  He has taught Russian in our school as an elective.  He has four sons, three of whom are grown and still in Nigera.  He came to the United States several years ago, and wanting to stay in New York City, he changed his career to teaching, eventually bringing his wife and youngest son.

These are the facts.  But they can’t quite describe his presence, and the impact he has had on every single one of our students.  It’s who he is.

“Be like Omolaja” says it all.


*”Omolaja” is pronounced “Om-oi-la-jah,” with a tiny emphasis on the “oi.”

The names of all students are changed unless otherwise indicated.  

Photo credit: Julie Nariman


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