Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Summer 2013

A to B: Paul-David Perry

illustration by Daniel VasconcellosIllustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

My shoes were talking. My uncle was furious. There I was, a first-grader in my gray dress slacks, my pressed white button-down shirt, my sleeveless maroon vest, and, of course, my clip-on tie. And on my feet were those talking shoes. I can't remember if they were black or brown, but I remember how floppy they were and how cool I thought that was. They reminded me of the Pac-Man arcade game. What I didn't understand was the deeper message that my floppy shoes might convey, a message that my uncle would never allow, because I was his to protect.

He had every right to be mad. They had enough on their plate with me as it was. My father and his partner — whom I called "Uncle" because it got me beat up less — had adopted me from a drug-addicted white mother living on welfare who carried me to term while in prison. My black biological father disappeared and never took responsibility for my existence. My adoptive parents would give me a reasonably middle class life. I would work in the family store learning my numbers on the cash register. I would play baseball and climb trees. I would be student council president. I would do what no one in our family had done before: go to college. But before that, there was this matter of the shoes. And there my parents were, two gay, white men with a brown baby being sent to school with floppy shoes.

He's gone now, my uncle. Brain cancer. When he passed, my heart felt so heavy that all I could do was lay down. I knew that one of my parents, the main advocate for my education, had left and would not be coming back. He never got to see how successful he was as a parent. He never got to see the boy he raised head off to Harvard. But I often try to imagine what he was thinking in that moment so many years ago. Here's my best guess: This poor child is the only black boy in that classroom, and we're paying good money for his Catholic school education, and here we are sending him to school with shoes like this. This is unacceptable.

We eventually ran out of money for that Catholic school, and I was sent to the local public middle school. Suddenly, I went from being the most colorful child in the class to being just another brown face in the multiracial crowd. I remember the pushing and the jostling through the crowds of kids. I recall how some kids lived in garages tucked into alleyways on the east end of town, the place that my father didn't like me going, but where I hustled through on my bike, curious as ever. I remember all of the accents swirling around me.

Most of all, I remember what it felt like to leave friends behind.

I was placed in the "gifted" program, which carried me through high school. Again, I was one of the few brown faces in our accelerated classes. It was April of my senior year, and I was walking into the guidance office, college acceptance letter in hand. I saw Donnell and Curtis in the lobby. We gave each other daps. Beyond being my friends, they represented the "other half" — the more than 50 percent of kids in my high school who lived in poverty and weren't lucky enough to be tracked into the gifted program. On my way out of the office later, I overheard one of them say to another counselor, "So, what's up with this S-A-T thing? We gotta take this before we can go to college?" My heart sank. But I kept walking away. Two months later, graduation came. I got my diploma and along with it, three certificates stating that I had scored advanced on the state standardized tests. No Child Left Behind. The irony of the name was not lost on me. Walking out of that auditorium on graduation day, I left Donnell and Curtis behind.

I got into education because I wake up every morning deeply conscious of how my own life story very nearly embodied the American Nightmare rather than the American Dream. I got into education because I know what it feels like to be left behind and to leave others behind in order to get ahead. I will remain in education until it is no longer a game of the chosen vaulting ahead of the unchosen. I will continue working until we've built a radically new and equitable system that moves us all forward, together.

— Paul-David Perry is an Ed.L.D. student and a member of the school leadership team at TechBoston Academy in Boston.