Learning from a Talented Grifter

Late one summer evening in 1988 or 1989 as I was leaving the New York office of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, someone called out to me, “John. Mr. Merrow.”  I turned to see a well-dressed young Black man coming toward me, hand outstretched.  He introduced himself with a first name I have forgotten and added, “I’m Kwame’s son. We met a while back in Washington.”   NewsHour watchers will remember Kwame Holman, our distinguished Capitol Hill correspondent.  Kwame and I had shared an office in Washington for about four years and had gotten to know and like each other.  My youngest, Kelsey, sometimes came to work with me, and Kwame, a gentle man with an easy laugh, was just super with her. We brought drawing paper and colored pencils, and one time she did a memorable sketch of Kwame’s ficus tree in our office that I still have somewhere.   We talked about our children, sharing pictures and stories, but when the young man greeted me, I couldn’t remember the number or genders of Kwame’s children.
But something was odd: Could Kwame have a son this old?  Then the young man went into a spiel about having run out of gas: his car was a few blocks away and could he borrow a few bucks to get some gas?  That set of an alarm bell, but I didn’t question him, which I am sure was partially race-related. As a white man, I just wouldn’t have been comfortable questioning him. What if he actually were Kwame’s son? How would I explain that, or live with that? Later I tried to figure out how I might have expressed my doubts, but to this day I haven’t figured it out.
I gave him $10 and the next morning I called Kwame.  He got a huge kick out of it, as well he should have. As I remember, he told me that his son was nowhere near that old.  We had a good laugh, even though I was embarrassed at my having been taken in.
Later, however, I had a very different reaction….I found myself admiring that young man.  Consider what he had done:  He had somehow learned who I was, perhaps by gaining access to the NewsHour lobby where all our photos were displayed.  He must have memorized all our names and faces, positioned himself to watch people leaving.  I happened to come out, and he acted.  That effort took ingenuity, determination, intelligence, and courage.  Skills and assets that our society could use, talents that could have propelled him to a successful life in mainstream America. But he he was, basically, a grifter, a con man, getting $10 for all that effort when he could have been, well, working for the NewsHour for starters.
In the late ’60’s I spent two years teaching English at night in a federal penitentiary in Virginia.  There I taught some of the brightest and most focused kids I ever encountered (and I also taught in a NY High school, at Virginia State College, and at Harvard).  I often lamented that those men had taken wrong turns and wondered how that happened, and why.
I had the same reaction to my encounter with Kwame’s ‘son.’  Such a waste…
Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard includes the memorable lines, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, to waste its sweetness on the desert air,’ but, powerful as that image is, it misses a larger point.  In our society, ‘flowers’ don’t waste their sweetness on the desert air; instead their talents are too often misdirected into negative and anti-social channels.  A just society would be outraged by this waste of talent and would address the wide opportunity gaps that exist.  To his credit, President Clinton’s Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, tried and failed to persuade Congress to focus on ‘the opportunity gap,’ but everyone else was–and is–fixated on ‘the achievement gap.’)
Those two experiences, teaching in a penitentiary and being duped by Kwame’s ‘son,’ had a powerful effect on my own thinking and on my reporting for the NewsHour and my subsequent writing.  Our current public education system is a well-oiled ‘sorting machine’ that examines every child, seeking to know ‘How Smart Are You?’, using testing, income, parental education, race, and social class as measuring sticks.  All the ‘education reforms’ of the past 20 or so years have failed to address the nature of the system; instead reformers have tinkered at the margins.
It’s within our reach to create schools that ask a different question about each child, not ‘How Smart Are You?’ but “HOW ARE YOU SMART?”  That’s what most parents ask about their own children, and it’s also what the best private and public schools do.  I believe it’s within our reach to create schools that ask that question about most children and then act accordingly to allow kids to develop their talents, but only if we can develop the will to do so.  I think we owe it to Kwame’s ‘son’ and all the other talented young people in our society…and it’s also in our own best interests to do so.
What do you say?
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10 thoughts on “Learning from a Talented Grifter

  1. How are you John! I read your article with delight. Repeatedly, our government will focus on doing things the same way it always had. Building prisons instead of spending money on rehabilitation. So what if in the end we have few bad apples and we end up with the majority of the crop in good shape. Look at our immigration system, where in the old days we admitted migrants because they wanted a new opportunity and thus the country benefited a great deal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be cautious, rather we shouldn’t be blind. We must give an opportunity to succeed for whoever is willing to put the efforts to make it real. That’s how America succeeded and became prosperous.
    Great article. Thank you.

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  2. We are a country that is failing to develop the talent of millions of young students of color and has spent a third of a century on the narrow diagnosis and strategies of the Reagan era–that we can solve our problems by more testing and accountability or by creating another even more segregated system of unregulated neighborhood charter schools. We need to value the potential of all children, eliminate the severe discrimination, and provide the opportunities and support all children need.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Part of the leadership John is recommending is coming from a new group that he helped create. John spoke at a meeting last October that attracted hundreds of people from more than 20 states. These folks now have created the Coalition of Independent Public Charter Schools, adopted a statement of principles that strongly endorses using multiple measures to assess student and school progress, district/charter collaboration, use of progressive education principles, accountability for meeting needs of the whole child, active recruitment of the highest need students, etc.
        https://www.indiecharters.org/
        In just a few months this summer, the group has attracted more than 100 members representing tens of thousands of students. It has publicly challenged the Trump administration’s separation of children and families. It’s discussed ways with a variety of community activists that it and others can build greater support among political leaders for the principles it’s endorsed.
        Incidentally, some students with whom traditional schools have not succeeded have blossomed in these schools. As John has written often, just calling a school “charter” means nothing. But these schools have endorsed, stand for and carry out principles that include many of the things John suggests.

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  3. The opportunity gap rather than the achievement gap is a needed shift in education policy direction you have identified Mr. John Merrow.

    The greatest impediment to instituting such a shift in direction to focus on opportunity gap is the segregated housing financed by the Federal government mortgage insurance by class and race from World War II on.

    Segregated housing is not segregation just by race but by economic income also. Suburbia was built on segregation by class with houses of the same price range grouped together in one track and a higher price range in another track.

    Neighborhood schools reflect the Government insured mortgages of our segregated Nation by race and class of today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a high school teacher, I see too many “grifters” leading our school system. These “leaders” are only interested in achieving certain metrics with little regard for kids. There are few avenues for educators to step forward and call out unethical or even illegal behavior. John, you did a great job calling out the cheating during Michelle Rhea’s tenure in Washington, D.C. Cheating is still rampant in D.C. and surrounding school systems. Educators are not protected. Please reach out to current education reporters. This is truly a story that needs to be told.http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2018/Court-of-Appeals-Sides-with-MCPS-in-Whistleblower-Case/

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    • Same here in Howard County Mr. Donlon….but no teachers are willing to come forward. AP is a big, money making scam for the county. Forget the kids! Forget a real education! Fill the kids with facts to regurgitate for a stupid standardized test. Sorry, that’s not education.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is from Henry Levin, the distinguished Teachers College professor, writing from Barcelona:
    Dear John,

    That happened to me last year in NYC, perhaps by same person. He was black and highly personable and asked me how was my friend that I had introduced him to. When I asked which friend, he answered “at work” when he passed by, a black dude around 30. I said, oh, you must mean Ernest. He said that he talked to Ernest and found that they had the same cousin, and he wanted to know if I still had Ernest’ telephone. He also told me that Ernest owed him $10.00 for lunch which he needed because he had to buy some medicine. I wrote down the man’s “name” to communicate to Ernest and gave him $10. By this time he had also asked me to remind him of my name because he had forgotten. By this time the conversation was about between Hank and “John” and about Ernest’ family and his cousin having hard times that he wanted to share with Ernest.
    I won’t go on, but a great scam with an amazing personna.

    Cordially,

    Hank

    Liked by 1 person

    • A brief response to the “con” that John and Hank described. One of the key strategies that many of us have found valuable to help “turn around” youngsters who behave badly is to get them involved in what’s sometimes called “service learning.” This combines classroom work and community service. It helps young people use their creativity (such as that described in your stories) to help solve local, community problems.

      There are many examples I could cite. Here are only 2
      * A young woman with whom I worked at an urban district school who was great at getting other youngsters to fight each other by going back and forth getting them angry by telling lies about what one person allegedly said about another. We helped her lead a new peer mediation program at the school. She was fabulous at this. She stopped instigating fights in part because she was getting a lot of praise and appreciation for other students for her work as a peer mediation – praise she had not been able to earn in the classroom, sports or other activities. The level of fighting at this urban middle school dropped to almost 0 in part because of her leadership.
      * A young man who was transferred to an urban district school after assaulting a teacher. He became involved in a class I taught where students learned to use their skills and creativity to help solve consumer problems that community members encountered. He was great at this. He used his anger and creativity in positive ways. He had been very violent and gradually this stopped.
      He later said that without a change in direction, he might have been dead before graduating from high school. He went on to work for/with Prince, the recording artist. Then he founded “Hip Hip High School” – a charter for students with whom traditional schools have not succeeded. These young people produce you-tube videos that are so good various companies like State Farm Insurance and Verizon Wireless have hired them to create videos for them.
      * Finally, I could tell similar stories about dual credit programs, something John recommends. This is another strategy our Center has strongly promoted for more than 30 years.

      The right kind of learning, teaching and schools can have a huge positive impact on youngsters. It can help lead to more more constructive use of creativity.

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