Growing up poor in Jamaica, Queens, Yemaya Bordain was swift with her fists. But it was with her brain that she dazzled. Her teachers nourished and challenged her intellectually and emotionally. Now age 31, and an electrical engineer for Intel Corporation, Bordain remains grateful to her teachers, first at PS 80, the Thurgood Marshall Magnet School of Multimedia and Communication, in Jamaica, and continuing to Isaac Newton MS for Math and Science in East Harlem. “The teachers, to a one, told me and showed me I was special and handed me off with love to the next teacher,” says Bordain, who in 2015 was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne.
Today, she is at the top of her field, with a designation — Solutions Engineer, Internet of Things — that delights kids and adults alike. She lives in Phoenix, but returns east often to visit her mother — and PS 80. Recently she showed up unannounced and taught 5th-graders how to create robots with a few sensors and common household appliances such as blow dryers. “You have to get them early, show them the world is a big place and if they believe in themselves and work hard, they can achieve great things,” says Bordain. “That’s what my teachers did for me. I’m just paying it forward.”
I was born in Milwaukee and went to kindergarten there. Then when I was 6, my mom and dad broke up. My mom moved home to her mom in Jamaica, Queens. And I went into PS 80 as a 1st-grader. I went back and forth. Half my education was in Milwaukee, the other half in New York City.
My very first teacher — and the one to identify me as gifted — was my older brother, Richard Jones. When I was 7, I would cry because I couldn’t read the newspaper. He handed me a dictionary and would help me decode the words. He died of cancer in my arms at 28. I was 18. Pretty soon after I entered her class, my 1st-grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner, noticed I was bright and believed I was misplaced. She began readying me for the gifted program, which I started in 2nd grade.
So I got it in stereo from my brother and my teachers that I was smart. They took the time to discover what made me tick and encouraged my insatiable passion to learn. Everything. Anything. It was the environment for learning they created for all the kids. Their genuine interest in us and our education made learning an incredible adventure. They just kept opening doors and even if I was scared, I had no choice but to walk through them.
In 5th grade, my teacher, Miss Yolanda Morris — now Mrs. Yolanda Princival — sent an essay I wrote about Thurgood Marshall to a regional contest, and I won! From that moment, it was like, “Oh man, I can excel!”
I was already reading constantly, but it was in 5th grade that I began to fall in love with math, too.
In 6th grade, the principal recommended me and three other of the highest-achieving girls to Isaac Newton MS for Math and Science. We were accepted and traveled close to three hours back and forth from our apartments to East Harlem. We took a bus and two trains and walked at least five blocks to the school.
The teachers at Isaac Newton were fantastic, too. Through Mrs. Betty Balsam I discovered algebra. It was so logical. It made sense. I was really good at it, and from that moment I had the bug.
To this day, I know the first 18 elements of the periodic table because my teacher, Miss Alice Zappile, made a song out of it.
And I can recite the entire map of North and South America because of my social studies teacher, Reginald Jones. He was the first black male teacher I ever had. He smiled so warmly at me and was soft-spoken and skinny. He wore a suit every single day.
I couldn’t afford a class trip to Washington, D.C. But I went because he covered the cost. He was both a kind and an effective teacher.
I got off a plane recently and thought, “I’m going to look him up.” I called and told him that 20 years later I am so happy he is still alive and I can tell him what he did for me.
Funny thing is I don’t think he remembered me at all. I didn’t care. He sounded so pleased that he had been a part of the success story I am today.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos