How much power does a school community have to motivate its students?
In my case, that community had so much power that it propelled me to my current status as a freshman at Rhode Island College. And the power that I speak of is not one of great strength or intellect but instead is defined by belief—the belief in a student’s ability to prosper and better themselves regardless of the mistakes they’ve made in the past.
My first two high schools are illustrative of what I see as a major deficiency in believing in kids. Both are comprehensive urban high schools, one in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the other in Providence.
It was clear to me that both of these schools had given up on me and were essentially working to get me and others like me out of their schools any way possible. We were young black men without fathers in our lives and they saw us as troubled, unmotivated and apathetic about school. And perhaps we were. But wasn’t it their job to work hard to help motivate and inspire us?
I stress “any way possible” because contrary to the goal of getting students to graduate from high school, my school leaders appeared to want me out by “any means necessary.” They were perfectly okay with me dropping out, facing expulsion, or leaving for a vocational program.
When I began a temporary phase of hanging around with kids who were skipping school and doing drugs, my grades started to fall and my attendance sharply declined. The administrative staff’s response was to offer me every one of those options. Oddly, they never talked about the possibility of me actually graduating from high school, let alone going on to college. In their eyes, I was not college material. That much was clear.
Vice principals referred me to vocational programs or recommended that I drop out of school countless times, saying things to my mother such as, “We feel this is a better fit for your son,” but never with a single attempt to motivate my academic interest or encourage my active involvement in my own education. I began to accept the pessimism about my future that was being spoon-fed to me by the school system. I would not be a high school graduate.
With nowhere else to turn and an overall feeling of abandonment, I felt like I’d hit the end of my academic career. It was the summer after my third year of high school (and my second sophomore year), but unbeknownst to me, this would turn out to be the most pivotal summer of my life.
I was accepted, by lottery, to Paul Cuffee High School in Providence. I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, as my past experiences with school systems hadn’t been the most encouraging and my outlook on education was pretty grim. What a relief to quickly find out that something was oddly different this time around, my third attempt at the 10th grade.
Progressing through my sophomore year, the first of which I actually passed, I realized that everybody around me, faculty and fellow students included, had nothing but my best interest at heart. They looked out for me, not only academically but even personally, supporting me as a student and also as a young man.
And they talked to me about college as a given, without ever expressing even the slightest doubt that I had what it took to continue my studies after high school. They believed I was smart. They believed I was capable. They recognized my strength as a writer.
This commitment to my well being and my future had been completely lacking in all my other schools up until this point. I actually credit Paul Cuffee School with my eventual graduation from high school and acceptance to college. Whether it was on my basketball team or in preparing for state exams, there was always someone on my side, fighting the battle alongside me, or at least it felt that way.
With a team backing you up and believing in you each and every step, it is possible to find the motivation to do things that would otherwise seem so daunting. They motivated me to be better, to try harder, and to persevere when things got really hard. They even nagged me, but I appreciated it. They weren’t willing to let me fail.
The lack of positive reinforcement that I felt before “winning the lottery” at Paul Cuffee made everything feel overwhelming and even impossible at times. I now realize that because of the Cuffee community’s unwavering belief in me and my abilities, I developed a supreme confidence that inspired a supreme effort on my part. At my other high school, I’d hang out all day in the gym without any adults saying a word to me. At Cuffee, everyone would do whatever they could to help me succeed. They knew I could do it.
So now, as I finish up my freshman year of college, there is no question that I’ve learned to seek out positive spaces in order to better my academic prosperity. I surround myself on campus with people who are motivated to succeed in school, to graduate from college, to do something meaningful with their lives. This ability to identify spaces of positive reinforcement is a direct result of having finally been part of one during my time at my third and final high school.
I was part of something very special for three years and it has had a lasting impact on the choices I make, the goals I set, the confidence I feel, and the effort I put forth. I am a living example that believing in students like me not only affects the way we learn while we are in school, but leaves an everlasting mark on our ideas about our own potential.
If the staff and students had not had my back and showed me how bright my future could be, I don’t know where I’d be right now. My guess is, I wouldn’t be a month away from finishing up my first year of college—passing all my classes and discovering a real interest in literature and Africana studies.
I’m so glad I found that supportive school community, and that they found me. They changed my life.