In the summer of 1988, I was an academic counselor at a summer program for “at-risk” high school students. It was at UMass Amherst and we stayed in the dorms. Most of the kids were from Lynn, Massachusetts and had never really been out of their neighborhoods. The idea was to get them out of their contexts, give them a fun summer experience, but with strong academic support that would help them in life — and maybe to college.
Back then, Lynn was a tough town with a bad reputation. The kids were low-income, most were African American, but there was a mix of races and background. Many first-generation immigrants; Vietnamese, Dominican, Haitian. There was one kid who stood out to me. He was a high school sophomore and small and skinny, but with a deep baritone voice that you could hear from a distance. Lawrence. You always knew when Lawrence was around, he was loud. He was a trouble maker, but not malicious. He was cantankerous and proud. But he didn’t break the rules like other kids — didn’t sneak out or smoke. Other kids laughed with him, but also kept a careful distance.
There was an air of tragedy about Lawrence. Troubled family. He was very private and guarded about himself. Hard to get anything personal from him. Other kids told me his older brother was a boxer and was famous in the community. But the brother had gotten into trouble and died on the streets.
Anyway, I got friendly with Lawrence. Friendly in the “I’m the nerdy white guy here to help and you think I’m ridiculous” sort of way. I didn’t try to hem him in and took all his jibes and snark in stride. I mean, he was here for a reason, wanted to improve his chances, wanted to help himself. So I helped him with school work whenever he’d let me. We kidded around a lot. He was disruptive in class, and the teachers were frustrated. He’d get in moods and lash out at other kids. Mostly, I just tried to be real with him, be around.
Basketball was big with the kids, mostly boys, but some girls, too. There were epic pickup games on outdoor courts anytime they were free and late into the steamy evenings after dinner in the cafeteria. All summer, kids gathered at the outdoor courts, played Public Enemy tapes loud on their boxes and watched and played basketball. Basketball wasn’t my sport, so I didn’t really play. I couldn’t hang with these kids and their street ball. Once a week the counselors would challenge the kids. The counselors had height and a few had skill and usually beat the kids. They teased me because I couldn’t play.
Lawrence played basketball, but he wasn’t really a baller. He was small and skinny. He usually ended up arguing more than playing. But one afternoon we were in his room, and I noticed a big poster he’d put up. It was MJ dunking with his tongue out. This was 1988 and I didn’t follow basketball. So I asked why he had it up.
He said, look at his eyes, his intensity, his will to win. That’s what I gotta have to make it.
It wasn’t what I expected him to say. MJ was his inspiration, not as a basketball player, but for his intensity, discipline, and will.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned I’m not very good at that kind of work, teaching and counseling and mentoring. But I also learned that the kids are interesting and resourceful and resilient even if I’m not much help.
And I learned to see some celebrities as role-models and heroes that can help kids navigate difficult circumstances. And MJ was a big one in 1988.