First Person

Our star student was honored by Michelle Obama, but he felt like a fraud. Now, we’re rethinking everything

PHOTO: Generation Citizen

On a Monday in January 2015, we were thrilled to find out that Anthony Mendez would be First Lady Michelle Obama’s personal guest at the State of the Union address.

Anthony had been a star student with Generation Citizen, the nonprofit where we serve as the CEO and a board member. The news felt like validation that our program worked — it had propelled a young person from not caring about politics to being a political star. Anthony was about to show its power to the entire country.

But the reality differed from the narrative. We didn’t know it then, but Anthony was actually about to drop out of college. He spent his moment in the sun feeling like a fraud — an experience he recently detailed in a powerful piece published on Vox.

We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways we used Anthony’s success to our own benefit. We’ve also spent time thinking about Anthony’s own feelings of shame at not being able to cut it in college, despite years of hard work.

We recognize now that our own glamorization of Anthony’s story demonstrates something subtle and dangerous: our collective tendency to elevate exceptions to the results of inequality in our society. This is a call for others in positions of power to question how we tell those stories.

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Generation Citizen is an organization that works to make politics real for young people. Over the course of a semester, students in New York and elsewhere choose local issues they care about and take real action. They present issues to community leaders. They ask local council members to push legislation for body cameras to curb police brutality, advocate for increased funding for teen jobs, and talk fluently about the school-to-prison pipeline. Our goal is for young people to recognize their own voices by using them to make a difference in their own communities.

We work with thousands of students each year, but Anthony, who is from the Bronx, was a stand-out. After his semester with Generation Citizen ended, he traveled to Albany to lobby for a bill we were pushing, received one of our fellowships, and interned with a City Council member. Before long, he became the face of our program. He was charismatic and articulate, and his passion for politics as a young person embodied everything we believed in.

As soon we found out that he would be at the State of the Union, the organization sprang into action. We sent an alert to let all of our supporters know that Anthony was the First Lady’s guest, and sent press releases to reporters touting Anthony’s experience as an example of Generation Citizen’s impact.

That night, our team watched President Obama’s address. As the cameras panned to the First Lady, we saw Anthony sitting directly to Michelle Obama’s right. The smile we knew so well was beaming at millions of American households across the country. He was a star — our star.

Anthony called us that night, thanking us for the opportunity and telling us how excited he was. “I’m going to be back here one day,” he said. We didn’t doubt it.

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Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.
PHOTO: The White House / YouTube
Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.

Over the next few months, Anthony’s story became Generation Citizen’s story. We used him in our materials we sent to our biggest donors. He was the keynote speaker at our Civics Day, regaling other students with stories of meeting the president and walking through the West Wing. And Anthony, by all outside appearances, continued to prosper. He started school at Hartford College and visited the White House again to talk about “beating the odds.”

In August, Anthony came back to visit us. But he wasn’t there to celebrate his latest success.

It turned out that, in a story all too familiar for first-generation college students, Anthony had been struggling mightily. He was not adjusting to college life and not receiving adequate mentorship. He’d almost failed out of college his first semester. In fact, on the night of the State of the Union address, his grade point average was 0.8.

He told us that, two days before the invitation to the State of the Union, he had been crying on the phone with his mom, thinking he would have to drop out of college. He prayed that night. And when the White House called with an invitation to the President’s address, he thought it might have been an actual response from God.

Hartford had no warning that one of their students would be a guest of the First Lady, and officials were further baffled when they checked Anthony’s academic record. When he returned from the nation’s capital, Hartford’s leaders, including the president of the college, met with him to provide support. Because of his academic standing, he technically should not have been invited back for the second semester.

Just like everyone who meets Anthony, though, the entire administration was taken by his charm and his efforts to engage with his studies. They loved him, and did everything they could to help him succeed. They boosted his financial aid. They provided tutoring. But nothing worked. His GPA continued to falter, and Hartford eventually asked him to leave.

How do we reconcile the fact that Anthony was our organizational success with the reality that he ended up feeling like a failure?

And what does it mean that we propped him up and essentially exploited him — as so many nonprofits do with the individuals, mostly poor and people of color, who go through their programs?

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Most of us enjoy a real-life Horatio Alger story in which someone, especially a young person, rises above the direst of circumstances to assume a position of fame or wealth. Such stories affirm the idea that hard work and a strong will are sufficient to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles, including centuries-old systems of oppression.

They also give life to the seductive myth that those who have not risen above their circumstances have only themselves to blame. The rags-to-riches story makes invisible the power of privilege and the devastation of systemic oppression.

Even well-meaning defenders of a democratic and inclusive society are susceptible to the appeal of a story of a nearly impossible triumph over great odds. They are drawn to the notion that a moment of stardom, or a powerful single act directed at a young person born into discrimination and oppression, is sufficient to set her or him on a path of triumph.

Remember, for those who labor to mitigate the effects of poverty and injustice in the lives of the nation’s youth, the rewards are few. And so when it seems a victory has occurred, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to crown a new superhero — without realizing that could give new life to a myth of rugged individualism that makes young men and women of color believe they alone are responsible for their perceived failures.

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Anthony’s story contains some of these familiar themes.

On the surface, his State of the Union invitation appeared to be the opportunity of a lifetime for a young Latino man who grew up in poverty in New York City. Anthony had “made it.” In reality, the limelight thrust upon him, and the responsibility to represent the elevation of young people like him, was premature.

It is important to keep in mind what identities Anthony did and did not bring with him to the State of the Union Address. He did not enter it having accomplished an outstanding feat like Malala Yousafzai, who understood the source of her oppressed status and courageously stood up against it, carving out an identity in the process. Anthony did not attend with the identity of a Muhammed Ali, who too had confronted his own oppression and forged his own identity as a black man in America through that struggle.

Anthony had worked hard. But he came to this major event primarily as a star-struck attendee, grateful to be invited. Anthony was there because someone else had determined that he symbolized hope for a more inclusive and democratic America.

We must acknowledge that at its core, bestowing the status of superhero upon someone is in itself an act of oppression, denying him or her the opportunity to claim one’s own humanity through purposeful struggle. That status also means that, when Anthony did fail, it was perfectly logical for him to blame himself.

Anthony will always bear responsibility for his life and his decisions. But life has not been difficult for him because he was not smart or had not worked hard enough. His failing out of college was certainly not because of a lack of desire.

Students like Anthony do not realize that segregation and poverty mean that they have had grossly inequitable opportunities to learn. It’s heartbreaking to think that, as he sat next to the First Lady and worried about having to leave college and being “found out,” he blamed himself for systems in place long before he was born.

To be clear, the First Lady is not a villain in this story, and we don’t think Generation Citizen is either. We see now that our response wasn’t wrong, but it was premature, and perhaps naive. It came from the need to validate the hard work of building a democracy, brick by brick and youth by youth. Reflection by both parties may reveal that we may have needed to raise Anthony to superhero status to validate our work more than Anthony needed this experience.

His story has made us ask important questions. How can we tell the story of Generation Citizen with integrity while still proving that the program works and attracting resources? What does success for us, and our students, actually look like?

For now, we hope that Anthony’s life story is one of success — of his own definition. Our job is to try to tell Anthony’s story with all the dignity and veracity that it deserves. We have not done so yet.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.