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.


Reflections on Privilege

I spent the weekend here, at my grandmother’s house in the Hamptons. While no one in my mother’s family has much money, this house has been passed down since only whalers and fishermen occupied the South Fork of Long Island. Now, this tiny plot of land is worth more than anything else they own, and it is the main vestige of family privilege.

I grew up steadily middle class, somewhere in the middle of the distribution in a boring suburban town in New England. White, male and educated at an expensive private university, I represent privilege to a lot of people even before we meet. Both of my parents earned graduate degrees, and they came from educated families, but there was never a ton of money around. My siblings and I all went into debt for college and worked our way through parts of high school and college.

All this is preamble to the dilemma I’ve been having recently: trying to reconcile my obvious privilege with my job in a high poverty school in Brooklyn. My identity makes me an outlier. Students had no problem with this, and neither did my colleagues. It’s my own uneasiness that makes my identity an obstacle. I’m the only one who makes it an issue.

In reality, the issue isn’t my privilege, it’s the enormous gap between my advantages and the shameful conditions experienced by my students and their families. In college, I had the opposite experience of privilege: at an prestigious liberal arts college, I was shocked by the wealth displayed all around me. I carried a chip on my shoulder because I couldn’t afford the costly spring break trips and other trappings of the super-rich. In some ways, my identity in socioeconomic terms is suffering from yo-yo syndrome: I went from the middle of the road through high school, close to the bottom in college, and now I find myself reacting to my comparably elite status next to the young people who have animated the past two years of my life.

I have more in common with the students I see in class than the powerful interests that control education reform, but in some important ways, I feel responsible to answer for the crimes of white people, elite interests, and the official world all at once. My students have been screwed by an unfair, discriminatory public school system, and although my career is so new, I carry guilt for history’s inequities. In an embarrassing acknowledgment of navel-gazing, I have to admit, I feel the weight of the stereotypes I’ve been known to rail against, white savior complexes and Freedom Writers alike.

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1990’s hip-hop recently, reconciling my upbringing idolizing Shaquille O’Neal, Deion Sanders and Jay-Z with my daily life, both in the mostly white neighborhood where I live and the predominantly black neighborhood where I work. So we’ll give Hov the last word:

Go with what makes sense
I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most impor-tant
And i can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back
To me that’s the win, win