There’s an embarrassment of riches that comes with being a fan of ABC’s hit comedy Abbott Elementary. The show, which stars Quinta Brunson as Janine Teagues, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard, Tyler James Williams as Gregory Eddie, and Janelle James as Principal Ava Coleman, is about a group of mostly Black educators at a predominately Black elementary school in Philadelphia and has captured audiences for its tender, hilarious, and lighthearted depiction of what it's like to be a Black teacher to young Black students.
For many real-life Black educators watching the series, the show often reflects their real experiences dealing with the intersections of poverty and Blackness and all the other stuff that comes with teaching in America.
xoNecole reached out to several Black teachers to ask whether the beloved sitcom reflects what actually goes on in the classroom.
What are your thoughts on the show 'Abbott Elementary'?
Ms. Ora (1st Grade Teacher): I love Abbott Elementary! This is my first year as a teacher, but I worked in a D.C. middle school through City Year for the 2021-22 school year. There are a lot of little moments or little jokes that are made on the show that resonates with my experiences this year and last school year.
Mr. Wes (Middle School Teacher): I really enjoy the show, and you can really tell that they work closely with educators to make sure that they’re showing it in a truthful way. Even though it is a lighthearted show, some of the parts of it still trigger me in ways I don’t expect it to. Like the one teacher who’s teaching the combo 2nd and 3rd-grade class, the scenes of chaos in that class make me cringe like I’m watching a horror movie. I think Janine is also either an astonishingly talented teacher at her age or has the chillest second graders ever. I teach middle school, but from what I see/hear about from other teachers and my firsthand experience covering other classes, let’s just say I have a lot of questions (laughs).
What does the show get right about being a Black educator in a school located in a Black working-class neighborhood?
Ms. Ora: The students and the relationships the students have with the teachers are extremely accurate. It's hard to put into words what exactly is so distinct about it, but there is something different about how Black educators relate to their students who are Black (or of color) that the show is able to capture.
Ms. Destiny Stone-King (Middle School Teacher): It definitely highlights the joy of getting to relate to your students culturally and giving them that sense of security knowing that they have educators who look like them and have cultural similarities.
Which character do you most relate to?
Ms. Ora: I feel very much like a Janine. I'm new to education, I'm still learning, and sometimes I find myself wanting to fix more than I'm capable of fixing on my own. I also have my own Ms. Howard that I look up to at my school (who also happens to be a kindergarten teacher).
Mr. Wes: Definitely Gregory. I feel like I grew up in a strict, military household and I’ve learned how that type of instruction/behavior management does not always work and can sometimes even be counterproductive. I’ve learned how to let loose and embrace my ridiculous/fun side more and more. It took me a while to realize that the attitude and vibes I bring into the class affect how the students behave. Which seems obvious, but when you’re stressed out all the time because you didn’t have time to plan as much or you’re behind on grading, you’re not always thinking about how that affects your presence in the classroom. I see Gregory learning that, and that scene where he lets go and dances are one of my favorite moments in the whole show.
Anonymous(Pre-K & 4th Grade Teacher): This is a hard pick for me but I think I’m somewhere between Barbara and Janine. I have Barbara’s energy exactly where she and I are mostly calm and know what to expect from people, but I have a little bit of Janine’s optimism and desire to evoke change. Sometimes I think that Janine is doing too much and she does need to learn how to separate her identity from her job or else she’ll end up burnt out. But I’ve found a lot of older educators can be set in their way of doing things, like Barbara, and I don’t subscribe to that method either. If there is a problem, I like to explore solutions to the problem instead of accepting that some things just are the way that they are. So I want to change things within my power, but I’m not as unrealistic as Janine.
What made you want to get into education?
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Ms. Ora: Honestly, I'm not sure. I started my undergraduate degree with every intention of going into law or some form of international relations, but as I neared the end of my degree I found myself being interested in teaching ESL at some point in my life. Every time I thought about teaching, I got really excited--I loved the idea of teaching the fundamentals of language, which is what made me want to teach early elementary in particular.
Ms. Stone-King: It’s literally in my blood. My grandma, grandpa, and parents were all teachers. As an independent artist who is pursuing my career as a singer, songwriter, and recording artist, I like that I can mix my passion for music with education and still have time in the evenings and weekends to work on my craft. I also specifically wanted to teach in predominantly Black schools because I only had one music teacher who looked like me from elementary up to college, so I wanted to show students that they can do this too if they want.
Ms. Chelsea (Pre-K Teacher): My grandmother was a teacher. She was actually a principal for the school for the deaf and the blind in Jamaica. She was a big leader in being more welcoming and accepting of those with exceptionalities in Jamaica and even when she left, [she] carried on those values to raise me in the U.S. with my mom. She was also my Pre-K teacher when I was little which was fun. I also am an only child and always loved taking care of kids and playing with kids. When I was in high school, my neighbor’s kids would knock on my door after school for me to play with them and my mom would be like, “You know she’s 16, right?” but we all didn't care. I loved spending time with them! So I decided to go into education because I just felt happy when I was working with kids and watching them grow and learn something new.
What’s something you hope the show touches on?
Ms. Stone-King: I hope the show has an episode about the arts!
Mr. Wes: I really hope they get into teacher unions. I’m very pro-labor and pro-union, but many of these establishment unions in large cities have become closer to school districts than a united labor force; bureaucracy, power trips, and just general apathy are what I feel like I get sometimes from my union. At a higher level, there’s obviously the tension between districts and unions, but I think the real intrigue is going deeper into what actually goes on in teacher unions. If a teacher has a serious issue, how are they helping address it? Many unions do great work but I feel that others need to take a serious look in the mirror and assess how they are actually helping the educators that they represent.
Ms. Kaitlin (4th Grade Teacher): I understand Ava blackmailed her way into the principal role, but let’s talk about how Gregory, who I adore, anticipated becoming principal without ever having taught. Ava drives those teachers crazy, but what would drive a teacher even crazier is being led by someone who has never set foot in a classroom. Let’s bring that back up, please! I want to know why Gregory thought principal-ing was something in his near future.
What would you like fans of 'Abbott Elementary' to know about the realities of working as a Black educator that they might not glean from the show?
Ms. Stone-King: Teaching is already an emotional investment, but especially being a Black educator working with Black students, you feel a greater responsibility to protect them but also expose them to possibilities that they’ve been conditioned to stay away from because of the color of their skin.
Anonymous: People will expect you to volunteer your time because we work in a caring profession, and then they’ll make you feel bad for asking about pay. This means that they’ll expect you to work during your lunch, come in after school, stay after school, and work late nights for free and not even suggest payment for these services. For teachers especially, if you take the day off you have to leave lesson plans for the person covering your classroom. They will likely call you on your off day and think you’re in the wrong for not answering the phone (if you don’t).
People know exactly what children need to learn and yet you’ll still need to advocate for your children especially to receive those support. Smaller class sizes, flexible seating, and empirically-based curriculum/technology do not come cheap or easily. The episode where they had additional money in the budget and Janine wanted a computer for the students so they could have a comparable experience to the charter was very real, and then for that money to get snatched up to address the rat infestation was even more tragically accurate.
Some things in the show seem too terrible to be true. I want fans to know that they are based in reality.
What are ways for the public to support Black educators and their students?
Anonymous: Please fund your schools, and vote for people who will fund the schools adequately. The money is plentiful and the real issue is that they are using it for reactive services versus proactive (education). Be involved in your local school district (volunteer, show up to after-school functions, and be an active member of the school boards). I mean this, especially for Black people and people who are invested in issues that impact Black people. The best way to support Black educators and our students is to show up.
As I said earlier, everyone relies on schools for a number of resources: dental and vision exams, therapy (occupational, physical, and emotional), parenting support, and more. Doctors will write prescriptions to parents to bring their child to school for evaluations, versus using outside agencies/referrals to evaluate children due to financial restraints. This is the foundation of our society for many families and it needs money and support in order to help our neighborhood grow.
Ms. Kaitlin: To voice Janine, the best way to support Black educators is by building community with them. The first Black working-class school I had taught in was in Bowie, MD, and we thrived from a beautiful balance of parent, teacher, and faculty involvement. Parents regularly helped with school lunches and special event days, teachers collaborated often, and faculty gave us helpful feedback and resources. It was an idyllic school setting, and the students absolutely thrived there. Another way to support a Black educator is by giving them money.
Ms. Rhyanna Morgan (2nd Grade Teacher): VOLUNTEER!!! Many public schools are short staffed and we need people that look like us helping us. Students need to see adults pitching in to take care of schools and the people in them. Make your voices heard, know what is going on at your neighborhood school, keep tabs on the school boards of Black and Brown cities. These things keep the community involved and keep schools safe and keep children with the education they deserve.
What advice do you give to any Black person who might be inspired to become an educator because of 'Abbott Elementary'?
Anonymous: I would advise anyone inspired to become an educator because of Abbott Elementary to go work/volunteer in a public school so they can learn the profession before committing to it. Abbott isn’t lying about how much is required of teachers. Teachers aren’t just teaching math, but they are also teaching about social skills, managing emotions, and now they’re taking temperatures. I would also advise anyone who wants to work in education to spend some time working with children with disabilities at specialty schools and settings. I want anyone aspiring to be an educator to familiarize themselves with special education and the research pertaining to how it impacts Black and brown children differently than it does white children.
Ms. Kaitlin: Care for your Black students as the teachers of Abbott Elementary care for theirs. In predominantly Black working-class schools, often educators and faculty police their students instead of care for them. The reasons are many-fold, but I hope that they are unlearned swiftly. I radically (at least it felt radical in my D.C. school), refused to raise my voice at my students. I had come out of an abusive relationship and learned that yelling was not a natural form of communication. This was something I had translated to my co-teacher, but she was not on board with the practice, so much so that she, a fellow Black educator, claimed that these students were “from the gutter,” and thus deserved to be spoken that way. They were nine. I don’t know how you look at a nine-year-old child and see them that way, or speak to them with such animosity. The way the teachers of Abbott Elementary speak to and care for their students should be replicated in schools everywhere.
Ms. Chelsea: Do your research on the schools you want to work at, ask to come in and observe. See how you feel in the space. Don’t be quick to run from the job. (I say many times a day I’m going to quit but I’m not serious, haha, I love what I do even when it's hard.) Reach out to me if you want to observe or see what different classrooms look like. I’m happy to share. I’m big on diverse children’s literature and can share my recommendations, etc.
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- How Valencia Clay Is Redefining What It Means To Be An Educator ›
- Black Women On How They Found The Therapist That Was ‘The One’ ›
- 8 HBCU Alums On How School Shaped Their Lives ›
- 'Abbott Elementary' Proves That TV Can Build Community ›
- To Be Young, Gifted & Black: 5 Black Educators On The Power Of Representation In The Classroom ›
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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