Eleventh in a series on this year’s 20 Under 40 winners.
WATERLOO — He doesn’t remember Mrs. Brown’s first name, but Lamont Muhammad said the teacher made a big impact on him while growing up in the San Francisco Bay area.
“She took a group of students and had us do these skits. And we would go and travel to other schools,” said Muhammad, now 39 and a fourth-grade teacher at Irving Elementary School.
Giving students an opportunity like that inspired Muhammad, who is one of The Courier’s 20 Under 40 recipients. Mrs. Brown remains a role model as he works with students in the Literacy Through Hip-Hop after-school and summer programs, which he co-directs. Some of the students involved in the program have even had the chance to visit various schools across the community and perform.
Muhammad needed role models like Mrs. Brown. His dad was in prison and his mom had drug addiction problems that eventually pushed him into the foster care system. Other role models were Muhammad’s grandmother, and after she died, his foster mother — who was the girlfriend of his grandfather.
“I just want to be the same for others,” said Muhammad, especially children who are growing up the way he did. He strives “to be a testament you can overcome whatever you’re going through.”
Over the years, Muhammad has repeatedly gone beyond the classroom in reaching out to young people. Along with his work on the hip hop literacy program, he has created and performed hip hop music and written two self-published children’s books.
Shuaib Meacham, a University of Northern Iowa associate professor, is the other director of the hip hop literacy program and has “collaborated on and off over five years” with Muhammad. Most recently, the literacy professor has been bringing his students to Muhammad’s class so they can observe the teacher and work with him.
“He’s kind of, to me, a prototype of how you can come up from a difficult background and succeed,” said Meacham, pointing to his work as an educator and author. He praised Muhammad’s efforts at “using hip hop as an additional device to affect the lives of kids. He’s been phenomenal with that.”
Meacham is also serving as an adviser for Muhammad’s doctorate program in curriculum and instruction at UNI.
Precious Clark-Muhammad, Lamont’s wife, noted that he ended up “caring for his siblings and struggling to help sustain them” through his father’s absence and his mother’s addictions. Since arriving in Waterloo and earning a college degree, “he has remained dedicated to the community.”
After graduating from high school, Muhammad traveled with his brother to Rock Island, Ill., where his mom was living. He was there for two years, during which time he enrolled in barber school and started cutting hair for a living.
He came to Waterloo in 2000 with the help of minister Michael Muhammad and his wife. He said the family “took me in as a little brother.”
Before long, Lamont Muhammad started working on a degree at Hawkeye Community College, attending there for a semester. Then he learned about the Walter Cunningham Memorial Teacher Preparation Project at Wartburg College in Waverly. It was open to minorities, most of whom were already working as paraeducators in the Waterloo Community Schools, and covered the cost of tuition, books, and fees.
“When I started at Hawkeye I knew I wanted to be in education,” said Muhammad, so he jumped at the chance to join the program. He later got a job with the school district, eventually working as a paraeducator while finishing his teaching degree. Muhammad has since earned a master’s degree in educational administration at UNI.
He became a first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in 2006-07, where the seed was planted for his book “I Am!” Published in 2016, it describes a child’s dreams for education and a future career.
“The book just started as an affirmation at my first teaching job,” said Muhammad, which he asked students to recite every day. “I just thought it was deep.”
After a decade in various Waterloo schools, he worked at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids during 2016-17. The following summer, as he was preparing to return to the Waterloo district, he first got involved with the hip hop program. He also published a second book, “I Can,” in 2017 and is currently working on a third one.