Kaddeem Wright enjoys reading philosophy and arguing with his friends about history and politics. With his smarts and innate curiosity about the world, Kaddeem seems like a kid who should thrive in school, but he's not. Instead he feels unmotivated and rarely does his homework. He scrapes by with a C average, something that frustrates him and his mom. Like a lot of kids, especially young black males in New York City, Kaddeem is not reaching his potential. He wants to know to why he and so many of his friends are barely getting by, uninspired by school or thoughts of the future.
With New Year's just a couple of weeks away, you may be thinking about resolutions for 2009. Perhaps you're considering one from years' past that you still haven't been able to fully tackle...Most of us have some area of our lives we've been struggling to fix for a long time: Making lasting changes can be tough. Radio Rookie Kaddeem Wright has been resolving to do better in school, but over and over again he keeps finding himself stuck:
NARRATION: Have you ever had an epiphany like Buddha sitting under the tree? Like Mohamed meditating on the mountain? Well, my epiphany came about in my 5th grade class. I was day dreaming and I realized: I have potential to do great things. My teacher thought I was smart. And ever since then, I've been hearing that over:
ADULT 1: Like I always tell your mother, you are one in a million.
NARRATION: And over.
ADULT 2: Smart.
ADULT 3: I think that you are a really intelligent young man.
ADULT 4: Inquisitive.
NARRATION: And over.
ADULT 4: Thoughtful.
ADULT 2: As someone who has potential.
NARRATION: Again. But anytime I hear that, I know what'll come next:
ADULT 5: We all believe and know that you could do better.
ADULT 3: Unmotivated.
ADULT 1: You are a little lazy.
ADULT 4: So one thing I know about you is that you're not keen on doing your history homework.
NARRATION: My friends and I like to discuss philosophy, religion and history, but we usually just B.S. to get by in school. It's a daily routine.
KADDEEM: So what are you doing now?
ORLANDO: Right now I'm going over some mathematics for tomorrow's lesson in class. (laughter)
KADDEEM: No you're not your just sitting here and watching Family Guy.
NARRATION: My friend Orlando and I are the O and K in the alphabet soup of slackers.
KADDEEM: You gotta be honest.
ORLANDO: Oh, you gotta' be like truthful?
NARRATION: But, as scary as it sounds, we are doing better than the majority of black male teens in New York City. I recently read about a study that showed that only a third of us graduate high school in four years. I'm shocked and disappointed. I don't want to be one of the drop outs, but I'm not completely on the other side of the rainbow.
MR. CASSIDY: So, can you tell me where you've been the past three days?
KADDEEM: Well, um...
MR. CASSIDY: You haven't been here when you needed to be here. So I'm going to sound a little frustrated.
NARRATION: Mama Mia here we go again.
MR. CASSIDY: And you need to be honest because that's the only way this is going to work.
NARRATION: Mr. Cassidy works at my after school program—Legal Outreach.
MR. CASSIDY: What did you do when you got home?
KADDEEM: Well, I did my homework.
NARRATION: Some Legal Outreach kids get into Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, but that's not what I'm headed for. Sometimes I miss the alarm clock and don't show up for their free SAT classes and college prep.
MR. CASSIDY: You really need to try to understand why you're avoiding this and making things worse for yourself.
KADDEEM: Was that a question?
MR. CASSIDY: No, it wasn't a question, it was a statement. What are you going to about it, how are you going to change things because right now you're on a downward spiral. Then what happens next, they you don't have the same potential to go off into college, the same potential to go off and get a job, and then you find yourself stuck. I'm tired of people getting stuck where they are cutting themselves short. You know the right answers, you know what we want to hear, but you don't do it. How are you going to change that? What's the next step? What's the next step here?
KADDEEM: The next step...um, if I knew I would've done it a long time ago.
NARRATION: When I listen back to that moment right there...
KADDEEM: I mean if I knew I'd done it along time ago.
NARRATION: I can feel my pride ooze out of me. I'm left with just enough breath to tell the truth.
KADDEEM: I mean if I knew I'd done it along time ago.
NARRATION: College professors have spent their entire careers trying to understand and solve this problem. They research things like instruction, peer pressure, fear of failure, and parent involvement. Okay I'm not getting a PhD., but I wonder which of these issues is holding me back. Let's look at parent involvement. On the weekends my mom does hair at a big beauty salon. Maybe one of the reasons I don't make honor roll is my mom is completely oblivious to my education. Psyche!!! I couldn't have asked for a better mother.
MOM: Did you do your homework? Because Miss Scipio told me that your class dropping.
NARRATION: My mom's not the reason I'm not doing my homework.
MOM: I would love to put you in a glass house and leave you there that's no problem, nothing like what I go through.
NARRATION: My mom wants to protect me from bad influences in my neighborhood: fast girls and guys on the corner. But it's hard to keep me in a glass house, if rocks are being thrown. Caution!: entering a 21st century urban school, where it's easy to find girls who do their homework and rock the word nerd. But a lot of the boys want to live the 'hood dream—nice clothes, girls, respect and money.
MUSIC: I went from sitting in a cell to sitting on a jet.
NARRATION: If you're not a part of the masses, beware. The college professors call this peer pressure.
MUSIC: I made too much money, I ain't make enough yet.
MISS TENE: There's a lot of intimidation of boys around that, or if you're seen as a nerd, or you're seen as smart, then maybe you're seen as weak.
NARRATION: Miss Tene is a youth specialist in my school, most of the students are black.
MISS TENE: The predominate image of other men your age is one where they're not really doing much, or they're hanging on the block. I'm not saying that's the way it is, but that might be the image, then your motivation to do really well is diminished. But I don't think it's necessarily because you're black that you're not going to do well in school, because I know a lot of young black men who do.
KADDEEM: Mic check, one two, one two. figaro, figaro... What's your name where you from?
SHAUMBE: My name is Shaumbe Powell.
NARRATION: My cousin Shaumbe is one of those successful young black men Miss Tene is talking about: he lives in suburban Maryland, he shifted from being an average student to honor roll status. And he says friends do play a big role, but his dad plays a bigger one.
SHAUMBE: I see the way he works hard and I see the money that he makes. I don't want to work as hard as he does to make the amount of money he makes. But I definitely think of him as a role model. He has a lot bigger impact on me than my friends do.
NARRATION: I wish I could say that about my father.
BARACK OBAMA: They're our teachers.
NARRATION: He calls me three times a year from Costa Rica,
BARACK OBAMA: They're our role models.
NARRATION: Expects me to be 100% dependent on my mother,
BARACK OBAMA: And examples of success.
NARRATION: And has kids with four different women.
BARACK OBAMA: And the men who constantly push us towards success.
NARRATION: I think Barack Obama would loooove him. But, honestly, my dad isn't what's stopping me from doing what I need to do. So...maybe my school is the problem? What if I switched to my cousin's school in the suburbs? The black male students in his little county graduate at a much higher rate than in New York City.
SABIENNE: Go to her locker! Go to her locker!
NARRATION: My friends Neville, Sabiene, and I were hanging out in the art room at my school. We are all on track to graduate, but graduating from our school isn't like graduating from a prep school like Dalton.
NEVILLE: I could understand why some of my friends don't want to come to school. I mean in some white, certain schools, they make their food fresh, the students have nap time, the students have time to come in late.
SABIENNE: We have less money—we don't get the best text books, and our calculators are not renewed all the time. The social economic class plays a key role expressing why certain people do better than others.
NARRATION: To be on the real, I don't exactly blame our school for my laziness. Some students in my school get A's, like Sabiene, she has a 93 average. Granted, I came into the world with the options of a pawn, not a king. But I know there's a boy in this world right here, who doesn't let wanna' be thugs bring him down, who doesn't care that his free lunch tastes like mud on dirt, and who can bust out A's. I'm still hoping I'm going to be that boy. But every time I open my report card, I'm not. And I still don't know why.
KADDEEM: I got a 45. The lowest grade I ever had in my life. Well, the first thing I look is my average. I know how I should feel, I know how everyone else is going to feel.
NARRATION: Am I going to make everybody happy, including myself, or will I keep wasting my potential?
TAPE: Let it slip away I guess.
NARRATION: For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Kaddeem Wright.