Commencement 2015: John Alston
Love, Recycling, and Becoming Number One
Every several months I test my fitness by riding my bike from the edge of Swarthmore, down Route 320, to the edge of Chester. Last year that ride took 3’30”, and this April I made it in 3’16”. So, the city of Chester is quite close to Swarthmore, but just far enough out of eyesight and earshot that the many sorrows of the city mostly remain unaddressed; not intentionally, but because folks up the road are too preoccupied to pay attention.
I have very bad news, very good news, and a proposal for you all to consider.
When I conducted my first Mozart Requiem at Swarthmore, there were 138 members of the College Chorus. Three years later I found 7 boys in one Chester school, and that was the beginning of the Chester Children’s Chorus (CCC). Today, there are not so many singers in the College Chorus, and this summer there will be more than 140 children in the CCC. Two years ago, we sang our first Mozart Requiem, and last year we sang our first Messiah – works of art not typically associated with Chester. I tell the children all the time that when they perform, they have the opportunity to show the world that Chester children are as beautiful and capable as their neighbors’ children up the road.
In 2013, I wrote a song for the families of the 22 victims murdered in Chester that year. Those of you who live in poor urban areas know that there is a tradition of placing stuffed animal memorials (mostly teddy bears with “I Love You” printed on them) to mark the location of the murder or the victim’s home. At every rehearsal, children would cry when we sang the song, and yet they insisted that we sing it at every rehearsal. Our Concert Choir is our most accomplished group. There are 45 young people, ages 12-18. They are the ones who sang Requiem and Messiah. During one of our many discussions about violence in Chester, a soprano girl told us all that her older brother was one of the 22 victims. Sadly, there were more. Three of our Concert Choir members lost older brothers to murder in 2013; three, in a group of 45. When I hear educators talk about poor black kids needing more ‘grit,’ I quickly remind them that our children have experienced more hardship than you’ll ever know, and are more courageous than you’ll ever be.
Some good news:
Eleven years ago, a little boy, Deondre, joined the CCC. His voice was odd for a seven year old; unusually low with no ability to sing in the normal children’s range. But he was attentive and charming, so despite his inability to sing most of the music, we kept him. Deondre struggled mightily until his voice broke and he began singing bass. There, he blossomed, and he led his section to glorious Requiem and Messiah performances. He joined our fitness club as a high-schooler, and while doing our treadmill workouts, he shared his love of American history with me. So I began lending him some of my favorite books. We read, ran, and talked, and I began calling him ‘Superboy.’ Two years ago, with the help of some Swarthmore friends, Deondre was given an interview for The Shipley School, awarded a full scholarship, and began his studies there as a high school junior. Shipley is an elite, Main Line (that’s redundant, isn’t it) prep school in Bryn Mawr, adjacent to Bryn Mawr College.
He commutes three hours every school day, getting up at 5 a.m. to catch his first train. Deondre earned mostly A’s, joined crew, captained the cross country team, and was elected president of the senior class. He scored above 700 on the SAT/Math, and was awarded full scholarships to Williams, Oberlin, UPenn, and Swarthmore. He dismissed Oberlin as ‘lacking the quality of the others’ – it seems he has learned something about snobbery during his preppy Main-Line experience. Williams was too far away, and for most of the spring he was sure he wanted to attend UPenn with his friends. He was also hearing from many folks about the important connections afforded by an Ivy school - more snobbery. The happy ending: on the last possible day, Deondre accepted his McCabe scholarship to Swarthmore College.
More good news:
Our school, The Chester Charter School for the Arts is three years old. We have 427 children, grades K-8, and are expanding each year until we become one of the few arts-integrated K-12 schools in the country. Our students have taken the State academic assessment each year, and the progress we made in 2014 was the third best in our 800 school region. Third best improvement of 800 schools! One day the academic and cultural distance between Swarthmore and Chester won’t be so big; and one day I’ll make that ride in under 3 minutes.
A very fun story:
So how good is our school? We have five white children in our very black school. One second grade white girl, Dakota, will tell you that she’s not white, she’s ‘light-skinned.” So it seems that our school is so good that the white folks want to be black…..imagine that.
In every practice room in the music building, there are trashcans, but not recycling bins – shocking, I know. Every now and then, a thoughtful student, rather than throwing a recyclable into the garbage can, will sensitively leave it next to the garbage can in the practice room. This enlightened Swattie is doing his or her part to save the earth, and we appreciate that very much. However, it takes about 15 seconds to walk from any practice room to a recycling bin. I suppose that this student was too tired from hours of intense practice.
Here’s the serious issue. It is likely that a Chester resident working in environmental services has to pick up that plastic bottle and put it where it belongs. How does that man feel when he picks up something that could have easily been thrown away properly? What does he say to his wife, when she asks him about his day? He works hard, is not ashamed, but perhaps is not proud, either. He welcomes that the College pays a living wage to all employees, but wonders who thought $12 an hour was living. But, if this mostly un-noticed man has children, he is working hard because he wants his children to have better lives than he had. So, he is particularly motivated because his children will receive the College tuition benefit if they attend college.
So, what could Swarthmore College do so that the man taking care of your recycling, and all Chester parents, loved you; felt genuine respect, admiration, and gratitude? There are 7,200 children going to school right now in Chester. Most will not go to college, and 40 percent will not graduate high school. But, what if you created a place where Chester children could learn as much and as well as your children learn. We could call this place a school. It would have an early childhood program, and would ensure that every child is performing at or above grade level by 11th grade. Its graduates, your graduates, would attend good colleges, some great colleges, trade schools, or the military. Swarthmore College students could learn about real community service; and learn, practice, and serve under experts. They could also learn from the first graders how to recycle properly. U.S. News and World Report would immediately promote you to number one. And, most important of all, because you created a place where more Chester children are receiving the same excellent education that your children are receiving; a place where Chester children are safe, respected, and admired; because you have overcome your fears and given your resources and love to Chester children; Chester parents and the community would love you back. And not only will you become number one; you will become wiser and happier than you ever imagined was possible.
Thank you for listening.