These are the words of an 18-year-old who recently graduated from high school in a high-poverty neighborhood in the nation’s capital: “Where I live, which is Ward 7, everyone is the same . . . If you follow the crowd, you’re going to end up dead or in jail because that’s where most of them are. But if you’re a leader and you make your own decisions, then you can set your path for life.”
Mike Ruff had to make up his mind a while back that he was going to step up and become one of the leaders. That’s what he told participants at the recent symposium, “Black Male Teens: Moving to Success in the High School Years,” sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and the Children’s Defense Fund. Mike explained how he came to embrace standing out from the crowd by defying low expectations—and how he reached a key turning point when a mentor told him he couldn’t succeed.
College and career planning wasn’t a reality for the people he knew: “Ninety-five percent of the students are poor. We come from basically nothing, because our parents were in the same situations that we are.” His father had dropped out of school in 10th grade, and when Mike started high school, he seemed to be heading down a similar track: “Ninety percent of the school did the same thing I did—skipped class, left school, and no one seemed to try to find out what the problem was.” His grade point average freshman year was a 2.5, and at the time his main ambition was to keep up a D-average so he could graduate.
But then he met with Mr. Mungin, one of the adults he’d met through an enrichment program he’d enrolled in during middle school. He asked Mike how his plans for life after high school were coming. Mike told Mr. Mungin he’d started thinking about a career in hospitality management, and Mr. Mungin asked to see his grades: “So he looked at my transcript, just for that ninth grade year . . . saw my grades, D, D, B, D, D, A, and looked back up at me with the straightest face and said, ‘You can’t do it.’ So that kind of hurt me, for a grown man telling me that I can’t do something. So then I just got up, walked out, and [caught] the bus home.”
With some uncaring and uninterested adults, that’s exactly where the story would end. Mike would have left discouraged from having a dream at all. But that wasn’t Mike’s story: “By the time I arrived home, there is Mr. Mungin already there. I was wondering, why is this man at my house after he told me that I can’t do something?” Mike had been lucky enough to find a true mentor on a mission. After Mr. and other mentors stepped in along the way to support him, by 11th grade Mike had brought his GPA up to a 3.0, and by the 12th grade, a 3.75.
Now Mike is attending Tuskegee University, a historically Black university founded by Booker T. Washington. Mike plans to double major in hospitality management and psychology. Mike knows that in his high school graduating class, he is one of the lucky ones: “We started off in this 12th grade with at least 300 students . . . but only 130 12th graders graduated.”
Mr. Mungin helped Mike realize he needed to change. But what happens to the students who never know a Mr. Mungin? What will happen to the other students in Mike’s high school class who didn’t graduate at all or were content to get out with mostly Ds? Far too many young Black boys are only hearing the first part of the message—“You can’t do it.” We need supports in place to show them that they can choose a different path—and even if no one else they know has done it, they can decide to be the ones to step up and lead the way.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.