Dear administrators at Roswell B. Mason School, I am writing with one simple hope: To return to my alma mater to share my story on the chance that it might help some other little boy — or girl — growing up in the ‘hood just like me.
Despite several telephone calls, and also email and conversations with a school secretary who seemed excited over the possibility of me speaking, months and the winter have now passed without so much as a peep.
Let me assure you that I seek no money, no honorarium. Not one dollar. Only the chance to give back.
I understand you may be busy. I’m busy too. But I’ll make time for the children of Mason.
A few months ago, on my morning trip to the West Side to drop my son off at school, I got to thinking about how often I have spoken over the years at various schools and youth programs across the country, for graduations, awards ceremonies and scholarship banquets. . . . I got to thinking how — with the exception of being Mason’s commencement speaker in 2000 — I hadn’t been back lately.
I got to thinking how good it would be to be able to go home again.
The neighborhood has changed. As I drive south on Pulaski Road, surrounding streets are dotted with blight, with vacant lots and battered houses that once stood proud.
I roll down 16th Street-past the corner where the Peanut Man once sold penny candy and red-and-white stripped bags of unsalted shelled peanuts, down to 18th Street where the Tastee Freez once stood. The change is glaring.
In some ways, K-Town, as we call it, seems a shell of herself. As if there was perhaps some epic war fought here. As if there is more fragility to life. As if the ghost of hope now plays hide and seek, and the dreams that once lived here are asleep.
But I can still imagine the old faces of friends and neighbors: Old Man Newell and my Aunt Mary. The throngs of children who used to round the corner at 18th and Komensky Avenue on school-day mornings, bound for Mason.
Mason was where I attended Head Start. Where I learned to love writing and first tasted the success of education. Where my second-grade teacher Miss Cartwright gave stern but loving instruction and where my principal Mr. Riley’s guidance helped steer me toward life and a future — away from death, drugs and prison.
Mason was where I won “Boy of the Year” for having the highest reading score in my school district. It was where now deceased Judge R. Eugene Pincham in 1974 was our 8th grade commencement speaker. I can still remember sitting in the auditorium, feeling as if Judge Pincham was speaking directly to me as he exhorted us to work hard. To hold fast to our dreams.
I realize that I am no Michael Jordan. No Steve Harvey. No Jay-Z. But I’m from here. And I was saved from these streets. Redeemed from poverty. Not by basketball or music and entertainment. But by education at Mason, by hard work and a dream.
There are many of us who made it up or out from neighborhoods like K-Town. And even if we no longer live there, it is critical that we find ways to give back-and just as critical that we be granted that opportunity.
Outside my alma mater the other morning, a big blue and white sign read: “We are Mason Achievers — Welcome Back.”
There are many places where I might speak. But there’s no place like home.