What Finish Line?

I’m always reluctant to write about specific students–partially for privacy reasons, and also out of respect. I’m not comfortable asking, and they generally haven’t agreed to have their stories told publicly, and I respect that, even when I come across a really phenomenal story. It isn’t my job to tell their stories, even in support of my own. It’s tough to resist at times, but the fear of being proven wrong about “success” keeps me from declaring premature victory with any of my students. Other times, they earn their own shine, and in those cases, I’m only too thrilled to amplify.

Robeson track runners (from l.) Jasheen Holloway, Mergaran Poleon, Kiambu Gall and Tahmel Anderson are pumped after competing in the Milrose Games trials at the Armory Track and Field Center in Washington Heights last month.


Today, the NY Daily News beat me to it in the case of one Jasheen Holloway (far left). He’s a student-athlete on the track team I help to coach who, as you can read in today’s paper, has already overcome tremendous odds to get to where he is today. The story, told with compassion, verges on fairy tale: kid has rough childhood and is “saved” by sport and caring adults. I don’t compare it to fairy tale to diminish the remarkable adults in Jasheen’s life, my colleague(s) included. But, he’s 16, halfway through his sophomore year of high school. He’s running impressive times on the track and he’s an amazing athlete, but…he’s 16.

Let’s not simplify individual lives to form a neat narrative arc. This story hasn’t received a “happy ending” yet, and he’s nowhere near a mythical finish line. Jasheen reminds me of several young men I have known who came up in extraordinarily difficult circumstances: he is older and younger than his years. He’s seen far too much and, at the same time, he hasn’t been exposed to nearly enough of the world. Abuse can force kids to grow up before they’re ready, leaving them with remnants of childishness well into adolescence. That’s matched by a hard edge that can only come with the intimate awareness of having seen parents and loved ones turn their backs on you.

In truth, he’s one of the kids who keeps me awake at night, worried, wondering, hoping. Will he be able to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and earn a college degree? I don’t know if he’ll make up the academic deficits he came into high school with, I don’t know if he can stay healthy and keep getting faster so that he can earn a scholarship and run in college. Education is all uncertain…

A glowing article in the Daily News is success worth celebrating, even if it’s full of minor errors and doesn’t even mention the team’s head coach (I don’t mind, really). This kid works hard and, over a pretty short time, he’s shown tremendous growth. I hope the article serves as motivation for him and for others who are in similar situations. This is why high school sports and other extracurricular activities are essential. Algebra typically doesn’t engage kids in school; it is a rare teenager who forms an identity around academics. It should be clear, though, that school is where young people make meaning and form identities.


Quick Notes on Inspiration

Wrestling over what to do with my future, I thought back on some inspiring quotations. I found myself looking back at a quote I first saw many years ago. At first, I dismissed it as both unimportant and erroneous, but I’ve come to see deeper value as I’ve grown older.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry, one of the best-selling books ever. This is one canonical work I’ve never picked up, and I’m not sure why. For years, all I knew about the book was this quote, and like I said, I dismissed it on first read. But this past week, it’s been playing through my mind in a loop.

My disposition is to over-analyze and think my way through every problem. The result is that I know a lot of stuff and can make reasonably well-informed decisions about lots of things–what to buy, where to eat, how to get places. On the other side, my inability to think in any other way hampers my ability to reflect and make important personal decisions. It’s a flaw.

There’s simply no way to rationally analyze what’s most important to you, what your values demand and how to chart a path forward. This part of life–the central part–is as Saint-Exupery says, both essential and invisible to the eye. It took a bit of tumult and a few headaches for me to figure this out, but I got here. Some things cant be thought out. Sometimes, you just have to follow your heart.

Teaching is an effort that requires whole-soul investment and commitment, and like any single guy, I’m terrified of commitment. But it’s worth it. Teaching is also the most rewarding project I’ve ever engaged in, enriching and challenging and amazing. Some days, it’s also deadening, heartbreaking and impossible, but even on the worst days, it’s worth it.

Education is learning to value what is valuable.