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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.