Somewhere around fourth grade, I started fantasizing about dropping out of school. I was in the midst of accumulating the initial marks on what would become a lengthy scholastic rap sheet. I had no trouble keeping up in my class of 30 or so. But I talked whenever the mood struck me, flicked paper footballs across the room, and instead of practicing subject-verb agreement, daydreamed about being reborn as Tony Dorsett. Among my favorite tricks was raising my hand for the lavatory pass, and then heading out for an epic schoolwide spin. I was evolving into the kind of kid who knew the line between hijinks and delinquency, but had no sense of how easily the first led to the second.
This was the mid-’80s—violent crime was rising, while the job pool for high-school dropouts was shrinking. A kind of mania gripped black parents in Baltimore. For black boys, there seemed to be only two roads—college or jail—and my parents would go to any ends to ensure that I took the former. I was the sixth of seven kids, and in my house, school was virtually the only way to elicit parental approval. My mother, herself a teacher, checked my notebook every night, and created progress reports for my teachers to fill out with categories like “paid attention in class,” “finished assignments,” “did not talk out of turn.” My father approached PTA meetings the way a patient approaches an oncologist. Every report of my acting out—and there were many—was treated as an early symptom of “Amount to Nothing” disease.