I’ve just returned from an informal session with some students participating in a mentoring program sponsored and run by 100 Black Men of Chicago. They work with African American high school boys on topics from academics to health; I was asked to do a college presentation and work individually with some of their seniors. And I have to say how inspired I am after that session.
About ten students were there (including one girl, the sister of one of the boys), with six seniors and the rest from other classes. The seniors by and large had actually done most of their applications and some had even heard back from the colleges they had applied to! I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they’d really done their homework. The biggest issue I ended up illuminating for them was college costs: Most said they’d been told by their teachers that going out of state for college would cost them more than staying in state. I quickly put that myth to rest and did an impromptu college financial aid presentation, which visibly relieved not only the students but also the mentors.
The range of aspiration varied but I could tell that with enough lead time any one of the boys there could probably do well enough in high school to attend a decent college. The most prepared had actually visited Pepperdine, and knew a great deal about the process. But all the seniors except one had at least put in an application. And they seemed not to be very stressed about it.
The other concept I wish I’d had more time to talk about is “fit.” The sister who was there said she’d gotten several full ride scholarship offers as well as some partial scholarships. I said that was great but that she should be sure to go to a school that met her needs, not just one that was free. I think she took that to heart because I saw her writing information down and going through the “compare colleges” pages of the College Board site that I’d steered her to.
One reason I’m so inspired by this Saturday morning meeting is that it was good to see kids and their mentors focused on college and trying to make a difference in their lives. I was impressed by the men in the room and felt that they were putting a lot of themselves out there for the good of the next generation. I confess that I don’t see middle class and prosperous African American adult males in groups very often, so I was humbled and full of admiration at the same time. I realized how provincial I am despite my best intentions, but I was greeted and thanked warmly, given plenty of time to do my presentation and share in the men’s desire to do something right with and for these boys.
Another reason for my excitement is the wonderful contrast between working with this group and working with the families of my former employer. The freshness and eagerness of the African American boys I saw today stood in such contrast to the constipated dreams of the parents I once worked with. These were parents for whom having to go to Tufts instead of Brown was a major tragedy; for whom not getting into a “name” school was simply “unacceptable” and a failure (of mine, not their child’s); for whom any little twig of advantage had to be grabbed to give someone already supremely privileged another “edge” into Valhalla.
It’s such a relief to be out of that niggardly, grasping, contentious, and status-anxious world. It feels so immensely better to be devoting my time and talents to students and parents who can really use my help and who actually appreciate it, who believe that hard work really does matter, not just who you know or how you construct yourself according to some nasty “How to Get Into College Book.” I think that the kids I work with now are more authentic and actually more desirable in many ways, despite academic lacunae, and that with the right support an inspiration early enough they could do just as well as the overbred scions of the crafty elite. Let’s not forget that George Bush drank and C’d his way through Yale; I’d put up any of the kids I’ve met in the last year against him and feel confident they could do better at running a country, never mind four years in college.
I haven’t looked back at my former school with anything much more than pity since I left (not voluntarily but willingly). The endless agonizing over iotas of meaning in instructions and points on tests, the ceaseless strategizing that finally erodes any traces of interesting character traits, the fierce determination to “win” at any cost, and the sad Bataan death march that is high school for these students, even one that purports to give them so much (that’s another story), left me feeling sorry for them and pity for their parents. But in the end there was no real help for them–they all wanted what they wanted and refused to accept less than that, despite the fact that they received more than they deserved in the first place. I’m glad to be with kids and adults who see the world head on and are willing to take it as it comes, rather than always trying to find a way around it; I’m glad to see the spark in a young African American boy’s face when you tell him he can indeed go to college. I live for that now and feel like it’s what I should have been doing before.
It takes time to learn these things–but better late than never.