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?