Product of My Environment

Instructing students in East New York is like my version of martyrdom. After two stints teaching with Harlem education programs, and some shaky tries at completing my own education, I have come to some unsettling conclusions about myself and how I have reached a mental impasse. Right now, devoid of a college degree and reeling from it, I still have trouble summoning the undaunted motivation to continue on that path.

I should qualify this by first declaring how much joy I derive from teaching students not unlike me at seventeen, both precocious and infinitely talented. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel obligated to correct some of the malfeasance festering in the urban education system. There is no single factor that prevents underclass access to education. Money concerns haunt poor urban families the most. Often, in our four-year cycles of election fanfare, we speak about the “plight of the middle class,” but middle class families can generally afford health care and alternative options for education. Where I was fortunate, others may not have been. But there’s the trick of it: how fortunate was I? After learning of a program designed in the spirit of equal access, my mother and I both decided I would enroll. Prep for Prep promises students from all backgrounds a look at elite education, and going further, elite opportunities for a career in any sector. In the eighties, while wealth shifted to the upper class and the crack epidemic unraveled an already whimpering ghetto, these integration type programs provided a boon for families lacking in gateway privileges like academic access and home loans. Just as neo-conservatism took hold, socially progressive children of the sixties replied with a push toward equilibrium.

Gary Simons founded Prep for Prep with that premise, and recognizing that “affirmative action” initiatives were going to trump quota systems by seeking fair inclusion for America’s jilted groups. I was part of a social experiment that students still endure: to train the smart-but-forgotten youth of the ‘hood into model students bent on bootstrap climbing. Although many education programs past sold integration (i.e. busing, transplanting), few had made assimilation the keystone. It worked for many of us to be shipped into different environments, use our backgrounds as motivation, defy odds, and fuel more Clintonian positive rhetoric. But for the rest (like me) it was a transition into a world of unfamiliar expectations and resentment.

The prickly part about the public-to-private transfer of programs like A Better Chance, Oliver and Prep for Prep is their assumption that “other” is better. Now, to be clear, Collegiate School in New York, where I attended in the nineties, is one of the best high schools in the nation. It graduates nearly all of its alum and usually fills the rolls at prestigious Ivy League and top-25 universities. I earned admission there and it changed my intellectual identity forever. Between the marvelous faculty, draped with PhD robes and published work, and a core of competitive naifs that I came to know as peers, I was often stunned by the limitlessness of knowledge. It changed my social identity forever, too. Instead of using the pass I had been granted by my paternalistic patron Gary Simons, I mostly dabbled in the formal privileges (course work, sports teams, clubs) and rummaged for whatever information I could find about this alien world.

Just when things started to get interesting, I fumbled my grades. Colleges frown on that kind of inconsistency, but it’s just as much a part of my character as brilliance. “Why not choose a man of character?”, I thought idly.

Most of the application process had been like folks were putting on an exaggerated version of self to appeal to a larger institution’s sense of humanity. So goes the mythology. I couldn’t have been more human and vulnerable as an adolescent. Education has to do with training, execution and accomplishment. A trio I haven’t yet mastered. I looked at it scornfully. I thought the world was defined by talents and potential, hence my obsession with tracking a hoop star from prep success to the pros, and my ever-diminishing interest in college basketball. The American university has been traditionally been the ripe ground for higher learning, varied analysis, top-flight deciding and articulation of the abstract. I have mistakenly thought that modern education is about financial advantages for the already endowed. Choosing the path of cynicism and disillusionment, however, yields less than simply accepting the fate of the token smart Negro. To gain my redemption, I have been surveying nonprofit programs like the one that reared me and trying my best to infuse more than just an Integrate or Die motto.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote an essay about integration that moved me. In it, she spoke of those dangerous establishment assumptions, the ones that make “equal” mean “same” in some twisted translation. Many of the nonprofit programs make education a priority for black and brown people, which in itself is a victory, but wholly neglect the cultural differences that have made education less than an afterthought in the rampage of urban decay. Besides teaching lingual fluency, and the usual “power of words” humdrum, I have tried to separate the loftiness of promises from the reality of survival. I understand that having my own battles with education and what it means may make me a better writer and teacher. The next few entries will be about my misgivings and disappointments, more so than any others I’ve written. Hopefully, readers will follow the chronicle of a school boy lost.



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