If I Were a Black Kid ...

Advice for students in Baltimore County and Cambridge, Massachusetts

Here's a question from yesterday's comments:
Here is a thought experiment—I do not pose this as an argument, or a "gotcha" proposition. I seriously want to hear this speech: TNC, if you are invited to your high school, Baltimore Polytechnic (thanks Wikipedia! P.S.: that you are not listed as a notable Alumnus is BS) and asked to speak to the students, what would you say? You're not allowed to give an impersonal, professorial talk about your academic interests. Let's assume the people who have invited you really want to know what you think they should do as individuals, and what they should do as a community, in order to achieve the kind of success in life that you have earned.
The large majority are good kids: driven, hungering for success and a sense of self, and desperately looking up to you for encouragement and advice, to somehow move them, even if they are too cool to show it. It's a pretty good school, but you are exceptional, and deep down, they want to be valued like you are valued. They want to be exceptional too. Sprinkled in the audience are also a bunch of fools who are making terrible choices and wrecking their own lives and hurting their community. But for this one hour, regardless of whether they have chosen to actively build up or tear down their lives and their community, they are ALL listening. You've got the mic. What would you say?
Well, first, I would say that you should be careful with Wikipedia. I did, in fact, attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute ("Poly" for short). But the reason I am not listed as a notable alumnus is probably that I didn't graduate from there. Oh, and here is something else—I was asked to leave. Twice. The first time, my parents argued for me to be readmitted. The second time they just threw up their hands and said—"Fool, you are on your own."
I was 16. I'd been arrested for assaulting a teacher and suspended on suspicion of assaulting another teacher. In my last year there, I got into a really huge fight in which I took a steel trash can to the head and then promptly failed four out of seven classes that year. I actually failed English. (You can read all about my lovely adventures with the Baltimore City Public Schools here.) So, you see, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be invited back to Poly to address the students. My older brother Malik, who also went to Poly and has gone on to work for Dreamworks, would be a much better candidate.
But, weirdly enough, I often do get asked to speak to predominantly black schools. Last year, I had the honor of going back to the site of my old middle school and spending a day with the kids. My mother teaches in Baltimore County and I've gone out and talked to her kids. I've even talked to the kids at Poly's longtime rival—City College. I'm pretty sure the teachers bring me in because they believe my checkered background might mean I have something to say to them.
What I generally try to do is avoid messages about "hard work" and "homework," not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse. The two words I try to use with them are "excitement" and "entrepreneurial." I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination. My belief is that, if I can get them to understand the "why?" of education, then the effort and hard work and long study hours will come after. I don't know how true that is in practice, but given that I am asked to speak from my own experience, that is the lesson I have drawn.
This will come as somewhat depressing news, but one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Poly was to get away from the violence that dogged virtually every other Baltimore city high school. That didn't exactly work out as I planned it. But my point is that my childhood—and my education—was largely guided by the need to negotiate violence. When teachers talked to us about why we needed to succeed, they talked about not ending up dead, or not ending up in jail.
Much like President Obama's own rhetoric, this line of conversation is understandable, and it has its uses. A lot of us were killing and being killed. A lot of us really were going to jail. My parents generally talked the same way, and in their case, I have to say it was largely successful. In a few days, I am going to see my younger brother sworn in as a lawyer in the state of Maryland. My father has seven kids. All of them hail from in and around West Baltimore. All of them, except me, graduated from college. Perhaps that makes the point. But I know how close I came to the edge. And I think a part of that was that not getting shot and not going to jail simply wasn't enough to make me want to succeed in school. No one ever told me about Paris. No one I knew had ever been.
What I have come to believe is that children are more than what their circumstances put upon them. So my goal is to get kids to own their education. I don't think I can hector them into doing this. I don't think I can shame them into doing it. I do think that I might be able to affect some sort of internal motivation. So I try to get them to see that every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe. I really mean this.
I went to the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2008, and I still was, very much, a product of my 'hood. I could not believe what I was seeing. There was a guy next to me who had been old friends with Peter Jennings. He was retired. He had tales about taking Peter Jennings's boat out sailing. He talked about how he'd spent the day up at the Continental Divide with his dog. He loved his life. His only trouble was that he couldn't convince his wife to retire.
Negro, I didn't even know what the Continental Divide was. And I remember thinking, "People actually live like this. Like, we're doing this now?" And then I remember thinking, "I want to live like that." By which I meant, I wanted to see things. If this was one world far from mine, there must be other worlds. And I really wanted to see them.
I recall sitting in my seventh-grade French class repeating over and over "Il fait froid. Il fait chaud." Why was I learning French? Who did I know that spoke French? Where is France? Do they even really talk like this? Well, yeah, they kinda do. I figured that out at 37. And now I find myself clutching flashcards, repeating "Il fait froid. Il fait chaud." This summer, I am going to live with my family in Paris for eight weeks and study the language. I had no idea that education could make that possible. If I had been more serious about education, the opportunity would have come a lot sooner.
So when I talk to young black kids, I try to talk about the "why" as much as the "what." And, for the record, I do the same thing at MIT. I start my class explaining that learning to write is their moral duty. I tell them they have access to more information than 99 percent of all humans who have ever lived. It is a moral duty to learn how to communicate that information clearly and compellingly. I think everyone should own their education.
I don't know if any of that works. But I am convinced that my problem was not mere laziness nor a lack of work ethic. Work ethics don't magically appear. Mine is most evinced when I understand why I am working and when I find that "why" compelling. I never really had that as a student. "Try harder" has to have some actual meaning beyond sloganeering.
At this point I am fairly well self-educated, though I have many weaknesses which I likely would not have had if I'd really gotten a proper and challenging education. (St. Augustine, stats, grammar, genetics, etc.) I'm not ashamed of this. It's just a fact. But I also know that if I'd understood, as a youth, what education can give you, that a degree was not simply a matter of being "Twice As Good" but a key to bearing witness to "Twice As Much," I might have made better choices. 
Addendum: One other thing I try to do is avoid talking about education in the negative. So I rarely talk to kids about what they "shouldn't be doing" or what they "can't do." I prefer to talk about what they can and should do. This is not mere phraseology. If you are a twelve year-old black kid who dreams of being the next Kendrick Lamar or Lebron James, I don't really see a problem. If you are are a 12 year-old black kid who only dreams of being that, I do see a problem. My argument to you is not that you should stop dreaming of rapping or playing ball, my argument is that you should dream about much more. That is part of the magic of being 12.
One problem with being from highly segregated communities (as most black kids are) is that you tend to have less exposure to the world. I had more exposure then virtually any of my friends, and that still wasn't much. When you don't have much exposure to the world the options you see for yourself tend to be limited--you can't really dream about that which you don't know exists. I would argue that the exposure granted by education is a potent antidote to the kind of provincialism that you must necessarily see in segregated communities. So my argument to the black twelve year-old boy isn't that he should stop dreaming of being a rapper or a ball player, but that he should understand that that isn't the end of his possibilities. And one way to see more of what it is possible is education.
I would not urge you simply to get off the PlayStation. I would urge you to understand who made the game. I would not urge you to take down your King James poster. I would urge you to think about the business that makes him possible. Perhaps you'd like to be part of that business some day. I would urge you think about what Kendrick is doing in his lyrics, to think about music. Do you know how to read music? Have you learned an instrument? Would that interest you? How about poetry? Have you ever read any? Would you consider trying to write some of your own?
I think we all get frustrated with the state of our community. I think it is easy to turn that frustration into a kind of catharsis by denigrating the dreams of children. I believe in taking the dreams of children seriously, and then challenging them to take their own dreams seriously. Again—ownership.
Again, I can only draw from my personal biography. I am doubtful that I could have been shamed into making better choices. Some people probably can be. There was plenty of shaming around me as a child. But I did not take education seriously until I saw something in it for me, aside from what everyone else thought.