Folks, I have long--and foolishly--railed against the "advantages" of private school and a top-notch education. You know me well--spawn of the crack age, class clown, kicked out of high school, college dropout, Rakim taught me as much about English as The Bard. I work in a profession in which, at this level, easily half my colleagues are Ivy Leaguers. Amongst the swank company here on the blog-roll, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who didn't go to an Ivy. Moreover, at this point, the number of blacks doing long-form magazine journalism is in the single digits. I say "at this point" but it's not like it was better at some other point. Unlike novelists, poets, newspaper writers etc., there are very very few black writers--if any--who were among my spiritual ancestors, the New Journalists.
Often people comment on that fact, and ask me how it feels to be doing what I do, despite who I have been. There is a temptation to take credit, to say that my achievements (whatever their merit) were garnered in spite of "the system," that I wrote my own rules, that I fought the law and I won. That temptation is foolish, and mostly the result of pride, vanity, and a warped sense of the world. If I'm honest with myself, I can say that, for whatever my attributes, I'm a 33-year old writer reading things that my colleagues read in undergrad. I can say that my understanding of grammar reflects the limitations of a kid who stopped paying attention somewhere around seventh grade. I make zero apologies for who I am--it happened the way it was supposed to happen, and I am who I am. But the notion that I should be proud of having, essentially, been a fuck-up for the earlier portion of my life always strikes me as odd.
Getting back to the initial point, I spent 17 hours yesterday driving through New England with a single Dad from the projects, here in Harlem, who was trying to get his son into an elite boarding school, for high school. The son already attends a Junior High boarding school, so he's on the right track. Anyway, we toured a few of the high schools. I helped the young man (a great, great, kid) with his application essay. We got stuck in the snow. Both of us got out to push. I'll be telling you more about these folks over the next couple years, I think, but long story short, yesterday, I got to see what a top notch high school education really looks like. It was stunning. I saw one school that was basically the size of Howard University. I saw schools with art studios spanning two levels, with beautiful chapels nestled in the snowy hills, with classrooms where kids weren't lectured to, but sat together in a circle, discussing lessons with a teacher.
If I'm honest with myself, I know that while, as young man, I laughed off my school failures publicly. But privately, every time I came up short, I lost a little bit of that sense that all children and young people deserve, that sense that I was capable of anything. I spent the last decade recovering from that.
Meh, don't cry for me. I had the sort of family that money can't buy. But yesterday, watching this young black boy from the projects, talking about his love of the Odyssey (and remembering how I devoured the Odyssey in tenth grade), and finishing up his apps to these venerable institutions, seeing all that's really out there, it was a reminder of all that is really out there, and how much work I have to do on behalf of my own son. How will it all turn out? What did the Rev. Lowery say? Who can tell? Who can truly tell?
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