Education Secretary John King is a generally soft-spoken, thoughtful guy. It’s hard to imagine him as a kid giving his teachers any trouble. But the topmost education official in the United States actually got booted from Phillips Andover Academy, an elite boarding school north of Boston, back when he was a high-school student there in the early 1990s. King, whose parents had both passed away by the time he was 13, felt “unhappy and overwhelmed” by the school’s unfamiliar culture and strict rules.
After boarding school, he went to live with his aunt and uncle, a former Tuskegee Airman who provided a sense of stability. Always strong academically, King, who grew up in Brooklyn, rebounded, and ultimately completed his undergraduate work at Harvard before earning a law degree from Yale, and a master’s in social studies and a doctorate in education from Columbia; he worked full-time and raised two small girls with his wife, Melissa, while he was getting his advanced degrees. Agree with his progressive politics or not, he’s clearly achieved some level of personal and professional success.
But things could’ve gone so differently.
“I often say I’m the first secretary of education to get kicked out of high school, but I hope I’m not the last,” he said during a recent phone conversation from Phoenix, where he’d just finished a roundtable with civil-rights organizations. “Part of why I am here today, why I’m doing the work that I’m doing today, is because folks gave me a second chance.” As he explained to my colleague earlier this year, as a black, Latino male student who was suffering from instability and family loss, King could've easily been dismissed by his teachers as a lost cause. “But instead,” he told me, “they chose to invest in me and support me and give me a second chance, and that helped me to get my life back on track.”