It was midnight and we sat on the jungle gym of a South Boston playground designated as being “for ages 8-12” and “requiring upper body strength and coordination.”
We both had some degree of “upper body strength and coordination,” but neither of us was 8-12.
The young man, who had abandoned his skateboard nearby to come talk to me, interrupted my vaguely clumsy acrobatics on the monkey bars to ask: “Yo, what are you doing? Like, why are you on here?”
I dropped to the ground.
“I saw you skateboarding,” I said.
The retort was a bit defensive, challenging. Did he think I was a cop or something? “No, I mean—-I don’t care. I just wanted to ask you: do you skate here at night? Do people bother you? Like: tell you to leave? Or is this place chill? That’s all….”
Instantly he relaxed. His shoulders dropped as he shrugged, open-palmed. “Oh, no—it’s cool. Nobody ever bothers us. They’ll tell us to leave during the day, but at night nobody cares.”
“So, like, you think I could come here a few times a week and climb and nobody would bother me?”
“Yeah, for sure. No one’s going to give you a hard time.”
“But why are you climbing?”
“I’m training. Practicing.”
I smiled. Silence.
“C’mon—you’re not gonna tell me?”
“I can’t,” I replied.
“Are you gonna climb a mountain?”
“Maybe. Maybe I am.”
“You’re not gonna climb a mountain, I can tell. Are you like sponsored by Red Bull or something?”
“Haha—no. I am most definitely not sponsored by Red Bull or anyone else.”
We faced each other on one of the metal platforms in the playground.
“Do you mind if I smoke a bowl?” he asked.
“I’d rather you not.”
“OK—-I won’t then. How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I’m 34. What about you?”
“22. Listen—OK—can I ask you a question then?”
“How do you feel about, like, dating younger people? Like would you date someone my age?”
“I would not,” I answered calmly. “To me that’s waaay too young. I’m a college professor. My students are 18-22. That would be like dating a student. That’s really weird, and I would never do it.”
Suddenly he stood up, his body a lightning bolt striking the air between us. Gone was the casual, off-hand questioning. Gone was the interest in smoking a bowl. “Wait. You’re a college professor?”
“Yeah—-here: give me your phone.” I Googled myself, then loaded the faculty page from the university where I worked. “Here, that’s me. Read.”
He read. He looked at my faculty picture, then at me. Again at my faculty picture, then back at me.
“I need to talk to you,” he insisted, handing the phone back to his friend with terse instructions to bookmark that page, yo—the one she’s on. “How do you like….get into college?”
I squinted, unsure of what he meant. A specific college? College in general? Which aspect of “getting in”? This was a far cry from some of the elite universities at which I’d taught—places where students were already richer, savvier, and better-traveled at 18 than I’d be at 80. Those kids attended Milton Academy and Phillips Exeter and had schedules of meticulously planned extracurricular activities and spoke fluent Mandarin. Or fluent French. Those kids had SAT prep and could afford to do unpaid internships because their parents were rich and they didn’t need to work for money. Those kids—so smart and cosmopolitan and sure of themselves—were so different from me. From us.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean like….the whole process. Look. No one in my family has ever gone to college. Nobody knows what to do. The counselors at my high school didn’t help us. I try to research and I know which schools I want to get into, but I don’t know the process.”
“Wow. OK—-well, you’re right. It is a process. There are a lot of steps involved. Hmmm. OK. We’ve got to fill out applications and financial aid stuff and…”
He interrupted, rattling off a list of four or five elite out-of-state schools he dreamed of attending and asking if we would have to complete a FAFSA. I blinked. This kid was obviously intelligent and had done his homework. He had a short list of schools. He could list the characteristics of each one that he found especially attractive. He knew the FAFSA existed. He was doing the best he could with what he had—and what he had was very little.
“OK,” I probed, “what’s your GPA?”
I sighed. “OK—-that’s not high enough for the schools you’ve listed. So we’re going to have to do something a little bit strategic. Let me know what you think: first we get you into a lower-tier public school or community college here in Mass. I know you want to go out of state, but your GPA is not high enough yet. So you do a year at one of those lower-tier schools and you get straight As, and then we rig it so you can transfer out to one of your dream schools.”
“Straight As. You can be poor and brilliant or rich and mediocre, but you can’t be poor and mediocre. It just doesn’t work that way.”
He nodded in agreement. “I feel you. Straight As.”
“You’re going to have to work hard.”
There was a long pause. He fiddled with his marijuana and looked down. I felt my heart twisting. Not out of pity. Out of deep sadness because of all the people who had failed this kid. This bright, driven, earnest kid.
“Will you help me get into college?” he asked.
The request was so simple. A hand reaching across a divide, grasping. Hoping for someone to grab it and not let go. I remembered my own trajectory, long and far. I felt another twist in my chest for this boy who was just like I had been, once upon a time. I remembered filling out the FAFSA by myself at the kitchen counter in my Mom’s condo. I remembered trying to write a persuasive letter to the Financial Aid Office that included the phrase “onerous mortgage payments.” I remembered taking the SAT twice and with zero preparation beforehand. I remembered applying to only one school—NYU—because I wanted to go there and because nobody had introduced me to the concept of “the safety school.”
I placed my hands on two horizontal, parallel bars and pushed, lifting myself upwards ever so slightly, my feet maybe 3 inches off the ground. I still had a lot of work to do; my upper body strength was total shit. Need to build muscle, I thought, and lowered my body back down to the ground: “Yes. I will help you get into college.”
With those words, he was like a child in front of whom I’d just set a birthday cake. His eyes burned, two lit candles.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
“It’s my job.”
“You’ve gotten other people into college before.”
“There’s a name for this,” I said. “It’s called ‘being an advisor.'”
“You’re my advisor now?”
“I am your advisor.”
It was spontaneous. He threw his arms around me. He hugged me tight, pressing his fingertips into my vertebrae. I hugged back.
He didn’t want to let go. We had to exchange emails and cell numbers. He had to make sure he had the right information. He could not lose track of me.
“I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”
Still, he had to make sure.
“I’ve wanted to go to college since I was in high school and I tried—I tried—but nobody could ever explain it to me. My family, they’re good people but they just don’t know anything about it. They never went to college. I tried asking people for help and nobody could ever help me. You’re the first person who has ever known how to help me get into college. I can’t lose you.”
“I know what that’s like. It’s hard. But I promise you, I’m not going to disappear. So let’s do this. Let’s get you into college.”
“Tell you what: you get me into college and I’ll train you.” The kid flexed, showing me biceps, triceps, rippling shoulder muscles. Granted, he was 22 and a boy—both advantages in terms of general fitness and strength—but he clearly trained. “I’ll train you.”
I extended my hand in the darkness to seal the deal. We shook.
“Deal. You gotta problem with push-ups?”
“You gonna complain?”
“Nope. I am willing to work hard. You’ll see. I’ll work hard to build muscle and you work hard to get into college. And if we both put in the work, it might just go our way.”
“That’s right,” he said. “That’s right.”
[***FIRST DRAFT: THURSDAY, MAY 15th, 2014. 19:09H EDT***]