Higher Achievement – 2010 GoingPlaces! Benefit – Alumni Address – Tariq West
A few weeks ago, at Higher Achievement’s Ward Eight Center, the evening’s activities beganwith a little game. We, the newly minted mentors and the bright-faced scholars, were meetingfor the first time, and the game was meant to break the ice.The scholars were grouped three or four to a mentor, and each scholar and mentor received ahand-full of skittles. Each skittle color represented a question, asking of the players in thissharing game, that they reveal something about themselves.Fast-forward a few minutes and I was on my fifth skittle draw. I closed my eyes, shuffled theskittles around on the desk, and then selected one skittle. It was the green skittle, the mostimportant of them all. And the question the green skittle posed was this: “Why are you inHigher Achievement?”The three scholars in my group had already drawn the green skittle and in their answers to thequestion it posed echoed a common theme: “We are here so that we can do better in school,attend a good high school and go to college!” And now it was my turn.I paused for a moment, not sure how to answer.The green skittle’s query, it seemed, demanded an answer longer than a 5
grader’s attentionspan. “How”, I thought, “might I relate in the space of a few short words, a journey that startedover a decade ago and brought me full circle to Higher Achievement, to this brilliant, spiritedgroup of scholars.”---I grew up just a few blocks away from the Ward Eight Achievement Center in Anacostia. Oneof eight children, I was raised in a pancake-yellow house that shared a block with a church,two half-way homes, a liquor store and Ketcham Elementary, one of the worst performingschools in the nation.As my favorite poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “There is laughter every day in the terrible streetsof Calcutta”; and so too was their laughter in the streets of Anacostia. I recall hopeful, evenidyllic moments from my childhood on the block. Others are tinged darkly.Hearing the joyful shouts and giggles from Ketcham’s playground at midday, you could almostimagine that this was a hopeful place, a place safe for the dreams of children. The parking lotnext to Ketcham’s playground, however, was a pit - an epicenter of drug and gang activity. Iwent to sleep many nights to the sound of gunfire, sirens, helicopters.In the darkest hours, the violence on the surrounding blocks was so brutal that the NationalGuard was called in to stand sentry, with their humvees, m-16s and banks of spot lights thatstaved off the darkness and the things that came inevitably with it.Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, I had two parents. They were hard-working and smart,principled and supportive. They did their best to shelter us from the realities that we lived with.But despite their best efforts, the ills that marked the neighborhood also marked our family.