Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Best Decision I Ever Made

In the late 80's, I made a momentous decision. I decided to return the advance on a book that was 3/5 finished- a book that might well have taken me from Fordham to Columbia or Princeton or Yale- and devote the next ten years of my life to coaching and running youth programs in my Brooklyn neighborhood. It is a decision that I have never regretted. Not only did I have a chance to see my own two children mature into top flight athletes who played their sports in college, I had an opportunity to spend long hours with young people who came from some of Brooklyn's most hard pressed neighborhoods as well as Park Slope, which was then a mixed income community. Those experiences had a profound impact on me as a teacher and a scholar as well as bringing me great joy and a feeling of accomplishment. It is the players I coached who gave me an intensive exposure to hip hop, often on car rides around Brooklyn and Queens and up and down the Eastern seaboard , while revealing its relevance to their lives and experience. It was in those car rides in the early and mid 90's that I first heard Wu Tang, DMX, Biggie and JZ; along with stories that placed their music in context. It is through the basketball program I ran on Saturdays in JHS 51 that I learned that even the toughest young men, people most other coaches feared, could be reached with the right combination of love, respect and discipline, along with an opportunity to take leadership.
I came away from this experience with a deep belief in the potential of the most marginalized young people in our society, along with a deep respect for the power of teachers and coaches to change the world for the better.
Everything I have done since that time, as a scholar and teacher and public citizen, rests on what I learned during a time when the young people of Brooklyn were my teachers as well as people I coached.