I Got Schooled
Everyone who decides to give money away makes missteps. A long time ago, I contributed to a passionate and well-meaning low-income housing initiative. I read their proposal, met with them, went to their church, walked the blocks that were going to be transformed, and wrote a check—a big one. Many years later, all I had bought with it was a raft of lost promises, intricate excuses, and bewilderment about where the funds went.
I licked my wounds. In due time, my interest in doing something to help my hometown of Philadelphia slowly migrated to education. Again, I chose to accomplish this by writing more checks. My wife, Bhavna, and I identified four exceptional public high school students from low-income schools and informed them we were going to help pay for their four years of college. To celebrate our candidates, I arranged to host a dinner with them at a popular and well-known restaurant to commemorate this auspicious beginning.
One thing you need to know about me is I’m seriously, clinically sentimental. I keep all the napkins I write ideas
down on. Sunsets are a must on vacation. My house is filled with photos from every moment in my family’s history. I keep a special bottle of Champagne for every script I complete. This list of sentimental rituals is long and getting longer; this dinner was going to become one of them. My wife and I were going to have an inspiring dinner with exceptional kids that were one day going to change the city of Philadelphia.
This is not what happened.
Bhavna and I waited at the restaurant as one by one the scholarship awardees arrived. One was escorted in by a very suspicious and protective aunt. The aunt clearly didn’t want to leave, but eventually relented. So there we were, Bhavna, me, our awardees, and utter silence. I am considered a loquacious guy. I sallied forth with my best icebreakers and never-fail-me jokes. These had no effect.
I took stock of our guests. All four stared with hurt, pained eyes. Through the course of the barely eaten meal, a few morsels of information spilled from their otherwise sewn-shut lips. The most important was this: They were scared and unprepared for college. These children were not ready. They were deeply struggling. They were suspicious of Bhavna and me, and suspicious of the world.
That’s when I began to recall things from their applications and letters, things that I had chosen to ignore. The uneven scores in their academics. The low percentiles of their standardized test scores as compared to public school kids not in the inner city. I remembered the darkness that stained their letters. The system had failed them and shoved them out the door with ribbons saying they had won.
It didn’t take much to see that the immediate future for them would be very difficult and they would feel every day like they were barely breathing. As they shook our hands politely and left, Bhavna looked at me and saw I was shaken.
I was looking to be inspired. These children needed saving, but our money wasn’t going to do the trick. The system had beaten them badly enough that no amount of money could undo the scars.
There are moments when you think you are somewhere on a road close to your destination until you see a road sign that tells you that you have drastically miscalculated the length of your journey. Bhavna and I left that restaurant feeling as so many others before us must have felt as they stared down the road and knew that their destination had somehow gotten further away. If we wanted to fix Philadelphia’s broken educational system—to say nothing of America’s—we needed a new map.