Jordany Baltazar's journey from school to home is about eight blocks.
It takes 15 minutes, maybe a little bit longer when snow and ice coat the mottled sidewalk and the wind blows off the Harlem River. But it really isn't very far for the 14-year-old. Except when the starting point is Frederick Douglass Academy at 148th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and the end point the Polo Grounds Towers. This is Harlem, not the gentrified Harlem you read about, but the Harlem of grime and grit rubbing up against the south Bronx.
"I've been scared many times," Jordany says as he makes his way home. "There are many things that can happen. Any time you can be hurt."
Jordany walks up to 153rd Street. He crosses a little park where homeless sit on benches surreptitiously sipping from bottles wrapped in plastic bags. He walks with his head down, because that's how you walk in a neighborhood like this: duck low, resist eye contact and keep on going. He ignores the stares due to the curious thing jutting out of his backpack. He goes past McCombs Street to 154th. Then he goes down 154th over to Eighth Avenue.
"The hallway to the 'hood," he calls it. It is a perfect description, accentuated by the piles of garbage ringing the trees, wrappers and supermarket bags and cans. On Eighth Avenue he takes a right. Past the storefront signs of Uptown 99 Cent Plus and Uptown Wireless and Luck Stationary and the Mama's Fried Chicken damaged by fire and the spires of tires at Perez Flat Fix. Across the street is Rucker Park, a playground legendary for its basketball and also the site of a shooting just several weeks earlier that left a teenager dead. Jordany knew him, not well, but he knew him.
He goes across the street into the Polo Grounds Towers, the only reminder of the legendary stadium of the same name a small image on a sign at the entrance. After the Polo Grounds were razed, four 30-story New York City Housing Authority apartment high-rises opened in 1968, currently 1,616 apartments and 4,207 residents shunted into 15.15 acres. The buildings loom over the neighborhood like gigantic watchtowers, casting their own distinct shadow. They are not as dangerous as they used to be. But Jordany takes no chances. There is a little ramp leading into his apartment building. "People just throw things out the window," he says. So he avoids it. He takes the outer walk, past an open bag of garbage with rotting food accompanied by two paper plates and the crust of a pizza.
Jordany walks into the sodden entranceway, the dim lights only seemingly becoming dimmer by the second. He waits for what feels like forever for one of the elevators, because everyone waits forever. He goes to his apartment, which he shares with several siblings and of course his mom, a home health aide worker with a generous laugh and a work schedule that often causes her to work all night. The apartment is painted blue, family portraits and diplomas proudly decorating one of the walls. It is crowded and colorful, an oasis from the building's hallway even more dark and drab than the entryway, a slick of water on the dark red floor, the smells of too many people compacted together.
Jordany wants to get out of the towers. He wants to take his family with him. Once upon a time it was just a dream, the kind of dream that kids in the 'hood often have at night while the sirens blast outside. But now it doesn't seem so faraway. He has gone through a radical change the past several years, the horizons of life, once so narrow and mostly confined to Harlem, opening like a wide-angle lens.
Jordany is heading into tenth grade at the Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It is a college preparatory school with Quaker roots, known for its academic excellence. Not so long ago he was a middle school kid at Frederick Douglass, a New York City public school that goes from sixth grade through high school. He didn't do his homework and didn't pay attention, liked hanging with the bad boys because the bad boys are often the most popular. But the summer before sixth grade, his mother insisted that he had to do something and didn't want him to do it in the projects. She signed him up for a day camp program based at Frederick Douglass. He continued with it through middle school until he went off to Westtown. He finished his freshman year with a 95 in algebra, a 91 in French and an 89 in physics.
The reason for that has to do with that thing he still carries back and forth from Frederick Douglass Academy regardless of the stares:
A lacrosse stick.
Jordany at first had no idea what it was or what to do with it. He knew nothing about the game of lacrosse or the program itself, a non-profit organization called Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership. But now he knows, just like dozens of others at Frederick Douglass know. All you have to do is ask him.
"If it wasn't for Harlem Lacrosse, I would have been on the streets," said Jordany. "I probably would have been in a gang."
Ever since I wrote the book Friday Night Lights twenty-five years ago, I have immersed myself in the culture of sports in schools.
I have witnessed many programs and written about many more. I have been publicly outspoken about the winning-at-all cost mentality in which lip service is paid to academics and personal growth when it should be the other way around. I have become concerned about the professionalism of sports at younger and younger ages in which the lifelong lessons that sports uniquely provides-discipline, dedication, advancement through the competition and teamwork-take a back seat to the temporary won-lost record.
Then I spent a recent week in July observing the non-profit organization Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership in action. The concern I had about sports in schools, not the sports programs themselves but the misplaced emphasis, turned to excitement. To say I was blown away is an understatement.
Before we go any further full disclosure:
I was approached by the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation to do a piece on Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership. I did research on the program as well as speak to individuals intimately familiar with it before saying yes. Every expectation was exceeded. Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership is one of the programs being funded by the foundation's multi-year $25 million commitment to supporting youth sports programs around the country. The foundation should be applauded.
Harlem Lacrosse is the single best school-based co-curricular program I have ever seen.
And note that I have left out the word "sports" before "program." Because it is not a sports program. Program Director Joel Censer calls Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership an "intervention" program in which lacrosse is used as the carrot to get kids to stay in school and become motivated far beyond the playing field. It is using the power of sports to unleash the potential of kids, many of whom, like Jordany, live in single parent households, some of who come from lower middle class backgrounds and some of whom live in shelters. It causes them to see a world they never knew existed but also to become a part of it. "If they don't like lacrosse and don't like coming to practice, then how are you going to have the intervention?" Censer notes.
James Addona, the executive director of Harlem Lacrosse, remembers what role lacrosse played in his own life. "It was the reason I came to high school," said Addona, who grew up in Levittown in Long Island and went on to Swarthmore College. One of the leading indicators of a child's growth is school attendance in eighth grade. So a primary thrust of the program is to get kids as they are going into sixth grade, turn them on to the pleasures of lacrosse ("I can hit my friends and not get in trouble for it" said participant Paul McPherson) and make going to school at Frederick Douglass a vital element of their lives. Along with mandatory study hall during the lunch hour and tutoring and creating partnerships with boarding schools and working with students even after they have left Frederick Douglass. The program, which is housed in four schools in Harlem and one in Baltimore, reached out to nearly 300 students this past year.
Those who actively participate are showing average GPA increases of between five and ten points each year.
It is proof of why the program should be at every public school in New York City, and not just New York City but every city in the country where underprivileged kids are routinely hit the hardest. Because an essential element of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership is that it is school-based.
Nearly forty boys and girls in the Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership program have gone on to boarding schools or will attend this fall, earning an aggregate of $9.1 million in scholarships.
Lacrosse is also the perfect sport, even if many in Harlem mistake it for a hockey stick or a cricket bat or ask, "Hey, what's that?" or think of it as a "white boy's game." It is booming, and top-tier schools and colleges are keen for players who have athleticism and academic motivation and don't fit the elitist reputation that the sport is trying to overcome.
Three graduating high school seniors who went through the program have gotten free rides to Colby College, Bates College and Dickinson College. Another is entering his sophomore year at Haverford College.
Yet sports in our schools are in danger of becoming an endangered species. Consider the following from such respected sources as The Aspen Institute, the organization Up2Us, and the United States Department of Education:
Wrote Up2Us in a recent report:
"Sports programs are one of the most cost-effective activities that promote positive youth development; in fact, extracurricular activities comprise just 1 to 3 percent of school budgets while engaging 60 to 70 percent of students. Sports programs are also unique in their ability to impact health, educational and behavioral benefits on youth."
The Up2Us report contains example after example of school districts that have cut back on sports programs, an aggregate of $1.5 billion in 2010-11.
The bottom line per the report:
"Further cuts to sports programs and or increases in pay-to-play must cease or our society could face severe and costly consequences."
A recent study co-sponsored by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health only underscores the value of sports in our schools. The vast majority of the parents sampled who said that their middle and high school sons and daughters benefited from playing sports cited improved physical health (88 percent); discipline and dedication (81 percent); mental health (73 percent) and improved skills for future schooling (56 percent).
The report further underscored the two-tier system that exists between the so-called "haves" and "have nots." It concluded that parents who have household income of less than $50,000 a year are twice as likely to have difficulty with the costs of their children's sports than those making more than $50,000 a year.
Sports should be egalitarian. Sports should be available to all. Sports should not be based on income levels. The above paints a distressing picture. It is easy to lose hope.
But then you see Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership.
You see tiny miracles every day big and small. You see middle school kids who cannot afford equipment now equipped without any cost to them. You meet students like Jordany Baltazar and Paul McPherson and L'nya Caldwell and Carlos Beason. You see pride. You see kids stepping up to the demands placed upon them. You see kids become motivated to do well in school. You see a model that not only should be emulated everywhere.
It can be emulated everywhere.
Joel Censer's journey from home to school begins in lower Manhattan and stops at the end of the line on the no. 3 Subway at 148th street.
The stop is next to Frederick Douglass, so all Censer has to do is walk up a few steps and then thru a narrow parking lot to the main entrance. The 29-year-old Censer, from Fairfax, Virginia, arrives at 8:25 in the morning. He is unshaven, as if to suggest that of all the things that life requires, shaving is at the very bottom. He is intense, very intense, as if to also suggest that smiling is a hazard.
The day is long for Censer, as it is for all the senior program directors of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership. It will end about twelve hours later, and if Censer could simply forego the five or six cups of coffee to get through it and have an IV of caffeine run through his veins, he would probably be fine with it just as long as he could still run and move around.
Censer starts the day in a drab classroom on the first floor of Frederick Douglass, a dozen eager faces in front of him. He is wearing a gray t-shirt with the words "death and glory" across it. When the day begins, it really begins. There is no dawdling, no psychic clearing of the throat. It's immediate Showtime. He is one of these people with the capacity to see everything even if he doesn't actually see it, a human split atom-who is late, who hasn't had breakfast in the school cafeteria, who is still half-asleep and who is awake and ready to go. On the desk near him is a pile of new equipment that has been donated: t-shirts, cleats, elbow pads. He doesn't just give it out indiscriminately: everything he does is about learning and creating the tools for learning.
He throws out trivia questions-name three cities in South America, name two Native American lacrosse players, name four lacrosse manufacturers, name two towns in Westchester, name fifteen candy bars, name fifteen sodas. The answers aren't nearly as important as instilling discipline and respect: those who yell out without raising their hand and being called on go to the back of the line. The same with those who are late: Even if you win the contest, you are going to have to wait for the prize until the next day. Nothing is for free, because nothing in life is for free.
Censer's cell rings. It's one of the players saying he is going to be late.
Why are you calling me at eight forty five when you're late? You should have called me at eight.
They line up in the hallway outside the classroom in a double column. There are about 15 of them, enrolled in a day camp at Frederick Douglass run by Harlem Lacrosse (a few others are missing because they are in competitive lacrosse camps all over the east coast). They range in age from 10 to 14. They are big and small, thin and corpulent, athletically gifted or just wanting to be a part of a greater whole. In some cases there is almost a hundred-pound difference between one player and another. But don't let looks deceive you. The fiercest player on the day camp squad is Xavier Fox, twelve years old and all of 90 pounds and 4-8 in height. He takes no prisoners in the corners, wielding his stick like the spiked ball and chain that the ancient gladiators favored. He's a little scary actually.
They walk around the corner from Frederick Douglass to the practice field. One of the players is responsible for the equipment, which has been dumped into a gray plastic garbage can with rollers underneath. If you don't pay attention, it sometimes skitters down the sidewalk on its own. Or falls off its rollers where in turn all the contents spill out. They walk into the Frederick Johnson playground and through a narrow corridor overflowing with bushes in need of a trim.
They come to the practice field - a series of handball courts.
Green space is at a premium in the New York City school system. So you make do with what you have. Balls fly all over the place because of the hardened surface, and lacrosse balls hurt. If you fall to the ground the odds are you are going to skin something. I have seen many lacrosse games and scrimmages during my life, but until I watched a Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership practice, I never saw one held up because the mesh of a player's stick got caught in a dilapidated chain link fence with weeds poking out of it.
Joel Censer is the senior program director for Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership at Frederick Douglas. It's a lousy description for all of the senior program directors. It's a lousy description for anyone who understands that the amount of time you spend on the field with kids, particularly at-risk kids, is in many ways incidental to the amount of time you need to spend with them in other arenas. Which is why school-based sports programs are so essential as opposed to outside leagues and clubs. You are able to keep track of kids, what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. You learn their habits, their moods, the key to unlocking them not just on the field of play (or the handball court) but in the classroom. You create meaningful relationships with their parents.
A better title would be mentor-coach-tutor-scold-cheerleader-taskmaster-confidante-advocate-booster.
During the school year Censer coaches a sixth grade team, a seventh and eighth grade team and at night does skill sessions for kids who are now in high school. He also coaches a club team of primarily ninth and tenth graders with rising skills who are alumni of the Harlem Lacrosse program. When he isn't coaching he is tutoring. When he isn't tutoring he is arranging trips for the kids to boarding schools. When he isn't arranging trips to boarding schools he is organizing field trips to Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania and Phillips Academy in Andover where the kids meet with coaches and players.
Censer, a former All-American defenseman from Haverford College, was an excellent freelance journalist for Lacrosse Magazine and a full-time grants writer before deciding he needed a change. When he saw the job opening for program director he thought it might be perfect for him.
The origins of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership began in 2008 when a 22-year-old in the Teach for America program came to Frederick Douglass to teach high school chemistry. Four days before school opened, he was told by the principal he would instead be teaching math to 7th and 8th grade special education students. Unless the alternative of being fired had more appeal.
The classroom at times did not feel physically safe. It was complete chaos. Few listened or cared.
The teacher was ready to quit, until in desperation he decided to take the worst-behaved kids in the class and turn them into a lacrosse team. He had played lacrosse in high school and thought the game might be perfect for these kids: it was a sport foreign to Harlem. It was college-oriented. It would give these kids an opportunity to adopt an identity that had nothing to do with negative influences.
Then something truly amazing happened.
There was a 180-degree turnaround. The kids were suddenly like different students in the classroom. They picked up the game quickly because of their natural athleticism. It was the first time in their lives they were recognized for being good at something. They felt they were in a brotherhood.
A lacrosse stick is still something of a novelty today in Harlem. Back then it was an alien object. When they walked down 125th street, some thought it was a fishing pole of some sort. Or maybe the kids were taking up jai-alai. The kids loved the stir that was created, because it made them feel different.
At the end of the school year the teacher's 7th and 8th graders took the state math exam. They scored the highest in the history of Frederick Douglass for special education students.
The next year the teacher went to colleagues and asked for their worst behaved kids so they could play lacrosse. The colleagues, who thought the teacher was a little nuts, were only too happy to comply. The result was the same. Kids who saw little reason to come to school were now coming. Kids who saw no point in doing homework now did it because they would not actively be a part of the lacrosse program if they did not. There was also a social trickle-down effect: because the toughest kids thought the program was cool, so did other kids.
Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership was born, officially incorporated as a non-profit in 2011.
Despite the merits of the program, Censer wasn't quite sure if it was right for him until his magic moment with Cheyenne Blue. He didn't have the skill of other players. There is a certain frustration in going through the repetitions of lacrosse practice and wondering if it is worth it except for those in the upper echelon. But when Censer watched him score a goal against another team, he knew he was onto something special. Cheyenne broke into a wide grin. He saw the immediate value of hanging in there. As Censer put it, "Wow! Kids need to score goals. They need to have positive reinforcement about what they do."
The program could not exist at Frederick Douglass without the blessing of principal Joseph Gates. The school is sprawling, 300 students in middle school and 1,200 in high school, 75 percent of whom are African American and 24 percent Latino. There are at-risk kids from low income backgrounds, just as there also kids in the past several years who have gone to Harvard, Yale, Penn, MIT and Dartmouth.
A former starting cornerback at the University of New Hampshire, Gates makes the point that it's sometimes hard for students to realize in the classroom the impact of not working hard, whereas hard work in sports often leads immediately to positive impact. He welcomes the partnerships that have developed with boarding schools. He believes in the values of Harlem Lacrosse, "not just to win but to compete at the highest level."
He also calls Censer "one of the most dedicated people I have ever met. He's just a role model for the students."
Practice on this Monday in July starts off a little ragged. Maybe because New York is already baking in slick-sweat heat and humidity. It will last a grueling three hours.
Joel Censer isn't interested in excuses. Regardless of their backgrounds, to mollycoddle the kids is to demean them and also suggest they are not capable of any demands. Like everything else at Harlem Lacrosse and the programs at other schools, practice is taken seriously. They are here to learn the game because in learning the game they are also learning about life. They are here to learn teamwork and competition and work ethic. They are here to see the rewards of such values.
The winning goes hand-in-hand and last year the team beat several New York City private middle schools and only lost by a goal to the Greenwich Middle School "B" team. These kids are good and only getting better. Winning is exciting, molding a team into even greater cohesion. But it's the level of effort that is important, the constant pounding away at the concept that what you put into anything in life is the exact same amount you get out of it. So is learning to overcome adversity and the twin companions of frustration and humiliation.
If a kid is dogging it, or suddenly stops practicing because he is frustrated over something, the session in turns stops for everyone until he returns. Time is valuable and so is honoring your teammates. You quit practice, you are quitting on your fellow players. So when the humidity makes your shirt stick to your skin in ten seconds, you deal with it. You don't seek refuge on the bench unless you have asked the coach first.
Censer on this day benefits from the help of assistants: two are fine lacrosse players from Bronxville High School in New York, Teddy Forst and Charlie Tarry, on their way to Yale and Princeton respectively. The other is a New York City police detective who played defense at Tufts and if possible, makes Censer seem soporific. But Censer is clearly the center of the wheel.
Can we get better? I know it's hot. I know it's early. Can you get better?
Let's go. We're not getting good reps right now!
It doesn't seem like any of you want to be here.
Then someone does something right and Censer's enthusiasm carries all the way to the upper façade of Yankee Stadium that looms in the distance.
I LOVE IT!! THAT'S PERFECT!!
It's like that all week, a volcanic eruption of praise and exhortations and fun and fast-pace and occasional admonishment, all in a voice that would never require a microphone if Censer went into public speaking, always a few extra exclamation points in the back pocket when needed to lift a player's spirit and recognize effort and introduce new energy.
I DON'T FEEL THE ENTHUSIASM!
NEXT TWO! WHO'S GOING! WHO'S GOING!
WHERE'S THE LOVE, DUDE! I PUT OUT MY HAND AND WHERE'S THE LOVE!
CUT THE BULL! GET UP AND LET'S GO!
YOU'RE LATE! THAT'S SELFISH!
GIVE A SHOUT OUT TO XAVIER!
I THINK ALL OF YOU REALLY IMPROVED TODAY!
DON'T PUSH IN THE BACK! DON'T BE A PUNK!
I LOVE IT! MAN ON FIRE! LEGITIMATELY ON FIRE!
NOW WE'RE GETTING INTO IT! GREAT REPS!
YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO DEAL WITH ADVERSITY! YOU'RE BETTER THAN THIS!
Then there are modulations, which judging from the looks on the kids' faces, sink in every bit as much as the exhortations:
"I know summer camp is three hours long every single day. I know we're asking a lot from you guys. Do you want to use this as an opportunity to get better, to have the best possible team or to whine and complain."
"You're gonna get out of it what you put in. This is three hours to invest in you and your team."
The journey of L'nya Caldwell begins at her apartment in the South Bronx.
The building she lives in is modern, part of the revitalization of what was once a symbol of urban blight and disgrace. On Oct. 5, 1977, President Jimmy Carter made a visit to Charlotte Street where he saw vacant buildings and barren lots and piles of brick. Today there are homes on the street that cost upwards of half a million dollars.
L'nya's mom works at Verizon, and it is obvious she has done everything possible to give her daughter a life of stability.
She walks up a little incline on the tree-lined street that is quiet and serene. L'nya is wearing black shorts and a gray shirt. The up-and-coming badge of honor in Harlem, the lacrosse stick, extends from the knapsack. L'nya takes a right and cuts through a housing project. The walk is still tranquil.
Until she comes to the commercial hustle and bustle of Jackson Avenue and the elevated tracks that hover over the neighborhood like a perpetual storm cloud. L'nya normally takes the no. 2 subway from Jackson to 135th Street, then the no. 3 to 148th. But on this day the reminder of where she lives, in a city that at anytime can succumb to violence, is only too apparent.
Someone got shot.
The words don't seem real at first. It's a cloudness day. You can even see specks of unblemished blue through the elevated tracks.
Someone got shot.
About a block away on Jackson, in front of the Cocina Latina Restaurant, a crime scene has been set off with yellow police tape. New York City homicide detectives mill inside the cordoned-off area, trying to determine what happened and why. Drops of blood on the sidewalk settles into a circular splotch. A detective stares at the pattern, and while the facts are still murky, there is no dispute that somebody was just killed.
L'nya is detached about it all, the ups and downs of life in the big city. "I hear about it a lot but I've never seen a lot of blood and stuff," she says. Plus she almost got shot when she was six, so it's hard to get too freaked out. Particularly when you know that thanks to Harlem Lacrosse your horizons have broadened into limitlessness.
"Harlem Lacrosse turned my life around," she says.
Sound like an echo?
The 15-year-old was part of the girls' program at Frederick Douglass Academy until high school. It is still in the growing stages, but 26-year-old Jessica Roberts, who just took it over and was a three-year lacrosse captain at Central Connecticut State University, is already seeing benefits: "It keeps them engaged. It gives them something to look forward to. They have a family now."
The greatest gift of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership is its multi-pronged approach: the extensive tutoring, the boarding school partnerships, the field trips to the nation's most prestigious universities that leave the players both starry-eyed and more motivated than ever.
Censer, along with the help of a wonderful group of college-age volunteers, oversees the tutoring program that takes place after practice. Typical is a session in which kids interpret a complex article in the New York Times called "The Dangers of Happiness." With a little help from a tutor they define the term "inalienable right" and the meaning of the word "narcissist" as well as pondering the philosophical issue of what makes a person happy in life.
There is also tutoring for two hours at night at a nearby public library for kids who aren't at Frederick Douglas anymore but Harlem Lacrosse still reaches out to to further their progress. L'nya is a participant in tutoring during the summer.
Before she joined Harlem Lacrosse in 7th grade, she was bored just going home every day after school. And when kids are bored….She cut classes. She watched fights. She knew of classmates who were taking drugs. Then the attitude changed.
L'nya became interested in going to the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia. That meant taking the SSATs as a requirement for admission. The preparation was brutal, and in Censer's mind also culturally biased because of the framing of various questions.
He tutored L'nya and said there were times she burst into tears because it was so difficult and so foreign.
She got through it because Censer helped her realize the importance of it, how going to Foxcroft would be a game-changer and encouraged her to go to a boarding school fair at the Riverside Church.
"Now it's time to put my head in the game," she remembers. "I wasn't focused on education."
She was accepted to Foxcroft. Her freshman curriculum last year included English, physics, math, Spanish, world cultures and art. She played goalie on the JV team. As she enters tenth grade, she likes the school and the school likes her. She has made the transition, and it is a guarantee that of all the things that can happen at Foxcroft, being across the street from a fatal shooting, the dried blood still visible in the summer sun, will not be one of them.
Carlos Beason's journey began from 135th street between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Later, after he moved with his mom, it started from Co-op City, almost two hours away.
He was one of the first participants in Harlem Lacrosse back in the days it didn't have the official name, starting in 7th grade. His reasons for joining were similar to those of L'nya Caldwell:
"Honestly I had nothing to do. I could go home and be bored. Or I could be productive."
He also wasn't focused-another similar refrain-with grades hovering around the C range.
He knew at a young age that he wanted to get out. Maybe it was because of fights he lost. Or the time he was chased for his shoes. He saw the effects of drug and alcohol on people he knew. He adopted the credo of not trusting anyone: "keep your head down. No left or right." He was blessed with a wonderful mother who worked as a housekeeper. His father was not in the picture.
As he became involved in Harlem lacrosse, as he began to see purpose in school, he also realized something else. Something simple perhaps. But something profound that goes to the hearts of why sports matter and the profound impact it can have on so many.
It isn't talent that defines a person but passion for something and love for something and dedication to something. Once you figure that out, which many kids first learn playing sports, the sky of possibility has no clouds. Talent can be squandered. Too many times it is squandered. But hard work and discipline are never squandered. They are never wasted.
What kids need is the opportunity to learn that lesson. Carlos got the opportunity with Harlem Lacrosse, but as he looked around at his contemporaries he saw how few get the opportunity or even if they do, fully take advantage of it because of the ravages around them. Or the peer pressure that leads too many kids into the perceived machismo of the streets. "You get the greatest kids, the greatest talents, but they're not allowed to take advantage of it," Carlos told me. "It becomes a vicious cycle."
"There were so many friends who were funnier than me, smarter than me, more athletic than me but didn't have the opportunity."
The most pivotal moment of Carlos' life came perhaps when he was in ninth grade and under the auspices of Harlem Lacrosse went to visit several prep schools as a prospective tenth grade student. Up until the idea of going away to school was broached to him, his assumption was that they were for "bad kids" who needed to be sent away. His mother had the same reaction:
"Why? Why do you want to go there? Did you do something wrong?"
On the bus rides to various schools, Carlos just kept staring out the window. He saw fertile lawns. He saw golf courses. He saw space and single-family homes instead of the cramped side-by-side living endemic to the urban city. "'This is the norm,'" he said to himself. "I need to be here."
Carlos was accepted to all five schools he applied to. He went to the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey. His freshman year was a struggle, a tiny capsule in a rough and choppy sea. His sophomore year was better. He blossomed his junior year with 13 goals and 12 assists on the varsity, including three against the rival Hun School. In his senior year he was elected captain and this fall will attend Colby College in what amounts to a free ride.
To say that Carlos Beason is personable and poised is a vast diminishment. When I first met him he was reading The Millionaire Mind by Thomas J. Stanley. He has aspirations of joining the corporate world. Just as he has aspirations of one day opening his own non-profit dedicated to at-risk kids. It only takes a few minutes of talking to Carlos to know that he will achieve both of his goals. Unless he decides to do something else. Like run for office. U.S. Senator? President? It can and has happened. Or maybe at some point follow in the footsteps of Joel Censer, who has played such a pivotal role in his maturation, and become a coach.
Carlos came out one day to help when I was at practice. He is a natural, working with the kids with the perfect combination of praise and authoritative scold. He knows the game and can translate its strategy. They listened raptly when he spoke, which is not something they do with everyone. He obviously identified with them, knew the environs from which many of them came, knew the opportunity that Harlem Lacrosse was giving them just as he also knew in his heart what his life would have been like without seizing the moment:
"I really didn't have much to claim. I would have lost focus in school because of peer pressure. I wouldn't be where I am."
Where would he be instead?
"Living a mediocre life."
The journey of Paul McPherson from home to Frederick Douglass Academy begins on 146th Street and 7th Avenue.
He gets up at 7:30 a.m. with his mom Maxine, the second floor apartment neat and tidy and a marvelous mélange of multi-colored glasses and vases and ceramics that Maxine collects. He gets dressed in his room, where several trophies for his athletic prowess rise nearly to the ceiling. He makes his own bacon and eggs with a precise recipe that he has down to perfection. He leaves the apartment around 8:15 a.m., and his mom, a licensed child-care provider, goes down with him to the front stoop and kisses him. He has not one lacrosse stick with him but two, his green shorts matching the color of his green sneakers and black Nike socks pulled above the ankle. He looks fly.
He goes by the Papi Barbershop where barbers are wanted, then by the L.A. Deli. The sidewalk is wide with little swirls of litter. There is a city garbage receptacle at the corner. But it's full, so green and white trash bags crowd around it, some of them ripped open with exposed Styrofoam takeout containers and scraps of tin foil. He goes into the entrance of Frederick Douglass and takes the first right, past an exhibit on the wall highlighting some of the school's distinguished graduates and an eternal testament to the resilience and vitality of Harlem whatever the circumstances-James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark, Brock Peters, Charles Rangel, Ozzie Davis, John Carlos.
He goes by other exhibits honoring the school's athletic achievements, mostly in basketball but also lacrosse (Frederick Douglass won the New York City PSAL title in 2013 and is getting ever-more competitive). He goes into the classroom where the players congregate before practice. Joel is there to welcome him, never knowing quite what to expect.
School and Paul McPherson have not been an easy marriage. By his own admission he was hard-headed, or as he put it, too often "in the wrong place at the wrong time." The temptation to mix it up in the streets with his friends was enormous. But there is an intellect and athleticism and energy to Paul that if harnessed in the right direction, can bring him to unimaginable heights.
He joined Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership going into the sixth grade.
He was born to hold a lacrosse stick, the underpinnings of a great defenseman-athletic, aggressive, agile-who could be one of the best in the city in high school and has the talent to play Division 1. Joel Censer sees nothing but great potential in Paul not just in lacrosse but academically, which is why he says that fifteen percent of the gray hairs he has come from Paul. He is uneven during practice, sometimes an enthusiastic leader among his teammates and sometimes frustrated when something does not go the way it should. Then he rebounds and rises again.
He is still learning the game and he is still learning about himself. His behavior in school has improved dramatically since joining Harlem Lacrosse. "I just come to school now and don't say a word," he says. He also realizes that if he does not get his homework done and skips the daily study hall at lunchtime, his ability to practice and improve will be significantly curtailed.
He is entering ninth grade at Frederick Douglass; like many of his teammates he is thinking about boarding school just as he also knows that he has to get his grades up. He struggles in math but his ability to write and create word portraits of moments in his life, the things that matter to him, is thrilling. He embodies the essence of why sports matter.
"It motivates people," he said. "If you have a sports team it motivates people to stay in school."
On Friday, the last day I am with the team, practice at the hardball courts is brief, only about an hour, followed by a community service field trip to Harlem Grown on135th Street.
Before they hop on the subway, Censer gathers the kids around him in a semi-circle. He praises them for the week-"Great work! You got better!" He also emphasizes the importance of what they are about to do now.
"What do you think community service means? We care about the community. If we fool around and pay attention, what does that say about us? I think we're good citizens."
They hop on the no. 3 to 135th Street, walk past a homeless woman with a small mountain of bags and then to Harlem Grown on 134th. It is an oasis of freshly grown vegetables, its mission to inspire youth through education in urban farming. It also teaches kids, as their guide puts it, to be "aware of myself. Aware of my neighbors. Aware of my surroundings."
The boys of Harlem Lacrosse go over such terms as "sustainable" and "ecosystem." They pull out gloves from a plastic bucket and dig their hands into the earth and pluck out worms and just as they have promised, neither throw them at each other nor try to eat them. They promise not to step on the plants and put all tools away after they use them. Some of the kids are antsy, or just need a little bit of attention, so they are the ones who can feel Censer's hand on their shoulders.
Paul McPherson is in the mix. On the subway ride over he asked to borrow a pen and a piece of paper. He said he wanted to write a poem about Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership and read it to his teammates. I saw him writing on the subway. But a poem takes time, and the subway ride wasn't very long, maybe ten minutes. As I was leaving and saying goodbye to the kids and coach Censer, an emotional moment because of all the wonders I had seen, I saw that Paul had already written a significant amount.
I asked him to show it to me. He was hesitant. He said he needed to work on it a little bit more. But he finally handed it to me, most it written during that subway ride.
Lacrosse is about brotherhood, hard work and class
It's for everyone: you don't have to be the most strong or fast
You must study the game, show effort, and have a blast.
And, make sure, you are never last.
No ifs or buts
Play to win and have fun.
You can accomplish great things when the day is done.
Any other questions about why sports matter in our schools? Any doubt in your mind?
I didn't think so.