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In early July, I made a trip back to my old neighborhood of Kingsbury in Trenton, New Jersey. I was on my way back from a board meeting for a nonprofit organization I support that serves Trenton and its surrounding communities. I couldn’t be in the area without stopping through Kingsbury Square to see where my journey began. So, instead of putting on my blinders and staying the course of the highway that cuts through the city and leads north to home, I took the off-ramp to Cooper Street and pulled up to park in front of my old building.
The neighborhood was a shell of the community it was in the late 70s and early 80s when, on a July day like this, men would be out waxing their cars, Black and Hispanic mothers would be perched in their windows, and children would be running in and out of every corner of every building laughing and playing any game their minds could imagine. I ran across an older woman sitting in front of my building, Ms. Carmen. We shared stories about how the neighborhood used to be and how so much of the spirit of community had fled with the tenants who were able to escape to a better life.
I asked her what the main problem facing the neighborhood was today. Ms. Carmen paused for a moment and explained to me that it's education. The children aren’t going to school because they don’t see the value in it anymore. Everything is different without an education. It is as if the children in the neighborhood have lost a curiosity for the world, a desire to learn in and outside of the classroom, an appreciation for life and the discovery of new ideas, the articulation of dreams, and the power of hope–all of it left in the distant past. A deep sorrow came over me all at once. I realized that my story was so different from the story that Ms. Carmen had shared with me about the families living today in the shadows of Kingsbury.
My mother and father came to Trenton as transplants from the Jersey shore, looking to start a new life and a family together. They had a plan while we were living in that crammed apartment in Kingsbury. With me being just born and my sister a year old, they realized that the only way up and out of Kingsbury was to focus on their education. So, both of my parents enrolled in colleges in the suburbs, juggled jobs and transportation, and created relationships with older families at a local church they joined to support us in every way. They traded the anxiety and fear of what they were running from in their youth for the stress and challenges of what they were running towards in their future together. The sacrifice was tremendous for all of us. My sister and I had to adjust to being cared for by a new extended family of older women from the church and their full house of foster children, relatives, and children of their own.
While standing there in front of my old unit, I asked Ms. Carmen what I could do to help. She replied, “Backpacks, Coltrane. The children need backpacks full of books.” It all made sense to me at that moment.
I had grown up in those early years with a sense of urgency, mobility and possibilities that started with watching my parents pack their backpacks every morning for a day of part-time work and college campus life somewhere far out beyond that crammed apartment. They would read to us at night and pack books into tiny backpacks before sending us to Mother Williams’ or Mother Sampson’s house for the day. We were literally a family whose future was being determined by what was in our backpacks and how we were using the books inside to transport us to new experiences.
That simple routine each day led to bookshelves lining the apartment on every subject from the socioeconomic state of Cuba to the collective works of Robert Frost. When my sister and I left the apartment each day, we felt like college students with part-time jobs too. We chose to sit and read from the books in our backpacks when we were away from home, instead of giving in to the mesmeric preoccupation of television.
No, we weren’t immune to the daily pressures of urban life and the encroaching onset of poverty that was slowly consuming Kingsbury and the city as a whole. But, the foundation was being laid early in the life of our young family that would push my parents to get masters degrees and to eventually buy a house on the other side of town; push my mother to start a policy consultancy aimed at supporting at-risk populations nation-wide; push my dad to be a school administrator and college professor and to write six books; and push my sister and I to win scholarships to Princeton area private schools and obtain college degrees of our own.
Ms. Carmen was right in seeing the power of backpacks and books. I was a witness to what they could do to empower a family and inspire you to personal excellence. There, in front of my old building, Ms. Carmen and I vowed to work together this fall to provide backpacks for the returning students living in Kingsbury. Hopefully we can plant seeds of hope for children returning to the classroom from their summer break. Maybe my story and my presence might somehow inspire this generation of Kingsbury residents to understand how valuable education can be to their dreams for the future.
As students all over the country return to school this fall, let’s appreciate the complexities and challenges that learners face at all levels of their educational and career journeys. As an educational community, we must continue to acknowledge the importance that dreams and aspirations, plans and structure, and guidance and support play in the success that all students seek through the foundation of an education.
Helping fill backpacks for students in need can make a difference and help them succeed in school and beyond. One of the charities Macmillan Learning and its employees have donated to in the past is Operation Backpack in New York City, but there are many other local and national charities to choose from, including Stuff the Bus and the Kids in Need Foundation.