The Euphoria and Tragedy of a Soon-to-be College Graduate

A monumental scholastic event will take place on May 13, but the accomplishment won’t register a blip in educational journals, much less local or national news.  College graduates are common, so when Jermaine McQueen shakes hands with the Lebanon Valley College (LVC) president and receives his diploma, the achievement will only seem miraculous to the few people who know his life story.

Jermaine was born to a sixteen year-old mother in a harsh southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.  He never knew his biological father and his stepdad was imprisoned for much of his early life.

His elementary school was one of the worst in Philadelphia and fed into a high school its students dubbed Prison on a Hill.  With limited resources, overcrowded classrooms, and a lawlessness that trumped order, his school was a microcosm of the violent, drug-ridden neighborhood he lived in.  Fistfights broke out daily and the most driven students found it challenging to concentrate on

Jermaine McQueen on graduation day.

Jermaine McQueen on graduation day.

lessons.  Many teachers were apathetic and/or so overwhelmed by their blighted workplace that they could hardly protect, much less educate, their students.

By the time he was ten, Jermaine had a knife pulled on him multiple times and saw his five year-old brother pinned to the sidewalk, the muzzle of a gun pressed between his eyes.  Back then, it would’ve been hard to imagine Jermaine graduating from high school.  Notions that he’d one day earn a BA from a private liberal arts college would’ve been a pipedream.

The summer after he completed fourth grade, Jermaine’s mother enrolled him in Folk Arts Cultural Treasures School (FACTS).    He arrived functioning several grade levels behind, but he found himself in manageable classes of 25, sitting through distraction-free lessons.  His questions went answered and without consistent disruptions and threats, he was able to concentrate.

The new setting proved to be transformative.  Safe and nurtured, Jermaine shifted from indifferent survivalist to driven student and leader.  Aware of Philadelphia’s hierarchical high school system, he approached his studies with maturity and resolve.

For four years, Jermaine worked hard, always completed his homework, and maintained perfect attendance.  By eighth grade, he was an above average student and optimistic that one of Philadelphia’s elite high schools would accept him.

His PSSA scores were above the city average, but not good enough.

His best option was a vocational school, which was better than Prison on a Hill, but lacked resources and coursework to send him onto college.  Classes were large, teachers weren’t helpful, and fighting was rampant.  Each day was physically and emotionally challenging.  He often wondered what he would do first – drop out or be expelled for protecting himself.

Late in his sophomore year, Jermaine transferred to Milton Hershey, a boarding school with private college amenities, founded on the principle:  A family’s income should not determine a child’s educational outcome.

Initially, Jermaine found himself behind academically, but once again he worked hard and took advantage of his opportunity.  By his senior year, he was a member of the national honor society.

With the added responsibilities of being a two-sport athlete and maintaining a part-time job, his collegiate ascent played out much like his elementary and high school years.  In time, he caught up with his more prepared classmates and next month he’ll be his family’s first college graduate.

There’s a generic familiarity to this narrative.

Hollywood, Oprah, and New York Times bestsellers love telling feel good stories about poor people pulling themselves up by their figurative bootstraps and defying the odds.  Although they create inspirational heroes, these media engines too often gloss over pertinent details, implying that success is solely attributable to character, but never circumstance.

The iniquity of America’s educational system may be unapparent to most LVC commencement attendees - especially those who know Jermaine, but not his backstory.  Not realizing that there aren’t enough FACTS and Milton Hershey’s to educate millions of impoverished children, they might feel tempted to sling mantra such as Opportunities exist for those willing to seize them, implying that any other 22 year-old could’ve done the same if they only acted responsibly and applied themselves.  Thus, cycles of dis-education and poverty is the fault of the community not the shame of civilization’s most wealthy nation.

Believing that we live in an opportunistically just society can be convenient.  Reconciling with uncomfortable truths weighs on our conscience, impelling us to challenge establishments, engage in uncomfortable conversations, and live as social pariahs when we do so.                                                                                       

Walking across the stage, diploma in hand, Jermaine will enter the annals of the American Dream – proof of what can be accomplished when a disadvantaged kid works hard and avoids the pitfalls of a desperate neighborhood. 

To me, the event will be a stark contrast of euphoria and savage tragedy – the former for potential realized, the latter for millions who are closed off to it.