“A heart-wrenching and triumphant story that will change lives.”—Bishop T. D. Jakes
Michael Phillips would never become anything. At least, that’s what he was told. It seemed like everyone was waiting for him to just fall through the cracks. After losing his father, suffering a life-altering car accident, and losing his college scholarship, Michael turned to selling drugs to make ends meet. But when his house was raided, he was arrested and thrown into a living nightmare.
When it looked like he would be sentenced to spend years behind bars, the judge gave him a choice—go to a special college program for adjudicated youth or face the possibility of a thirty-year prison sentence. It wasn’t hard to pick. From that choice, a mission was born—to help change the system that shuffles so many young Black men like Michael straight from school to prison. Today, Michael is the pastor of a thriving church, a local leader in Baltimore, and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. He discovered that education was the path to becoming who he was created to be.
Armed with research, statistics, and his powerful story, Michael tackles the embedded privilege of the education system and introduces ideas for change that could level the playing field and reduce negative impacts on vulnerable youth. He explores ways in which the readers can help advocate and provide resources for students, and points us to the one thing anyone can start doing, no matter who we are or what our role is: speak into young kids’ lives. Tell them of their inherent worth and purpose.
In this inspiring, thought-provoking, and energizing call to action, Michael’s practical steps provide a way forward to anyone wanting to help create space for collateral hope in the lives of for young people around them.
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|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||9.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My Soul Looks Back and Wonders
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
My childhood dreams resembled red construction paper pasted on white cardboard. I can still picture a little report I made for career day in first grade. We had to show our class what profession we wanted to have—who we thought we could eventually become when we grew up. For me there was no question. I wanted to be a lawyer.
My mother and grandmother had inspired this ambition by regularly watching Perry Mason reruns on CBS. The black-and-white television show starred Raymond Burr as a brilliant defense lawyer working in Los Angeles. Each episode involved a different crime and trial and was memorably named after a case, such as “The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink” and “The Case of the Polka Dot Pony.” The mystery of every plot and the creative ways Perry Mason battled for justice ignited my young mind. I would watch, riveted. I daydreamed about walking into a courtroom under a sharp fedora. I could be a smooth lawyer like Perry one day, I felt.
I’ve always been a dreamer. I grew up in Baltimore’s Park Heights, son of a working middle-class family. Our duplex didn’t have much of a yard. My father was a full-time pastor and somehow a full-time truck driver; my mother worked for the Maryland state lottery until she decided to stay at home full-time with me and my three siblings.
I had every right to dream, and Park Heights made dreaming easy. I loved my neighborhood. Every corner was lively, each with its distinct sound. On one corner you could hear the trash talk of old men playing checkers outside the rowhouses; then just a block down the street, you could hear hip-hop music coming from someone’s stoop with young men arguing over a game of dice. I was inspired by those simple echoes. But sometimes the beautiful noise was silenced by the crashing cries that came from other corners in my neighborhood—corners that weren’t so safe. Cries of crime and violence. Those dueling reverberations were normal where I grew up. Kids played outside either until the streetlamps came on . . . or until sirens sent everyone indoors.
Though we inevitably had rough elements to deal with, such as the drug corners around us, the addicts that occupied them, or the violence that took place—sometimes right in front of us—I still didn’t have a problem dreaming big. In those clattering moments, I would sit in my grandmother’s kitchen, sneaking too-hot bites of some of her famous gumbo from the pot bubbling on the stove, and listen to her talk about her heroes.
My grandmother loved not only watching Perry Mason on television but also talking about a real lawyer from Baltimore. Thurgood Marshall studied law at Howard University and graduated first in his class. After Howard, Marshall opened a private practice firm in Baltimore. He was the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court and served on it for twenty-four years until 1991. He also just so happened to have grown up not so far away from Park Heights.
In 1954, while chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall served as chief attorney in a landmark case before the Supreme Court. It was one of the greatest and most meaningful court decisions in US history. Simply, Brown v. Board of Education declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It became one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, beginning a new—but still deeply complicated—period in American life.
For almost six decades, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had made it legal to have racially segregated public facilities as long as the facilities were “equal” for both Blacks and Whites. This would become known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. Brown v. Board of Education overturned this ideology. During the arguments for the case, Marshall was asked what he meant by equal, and he quickly replied, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.”
Those are the words of a hero. Thurgood Marshall gave me a model for success, something to believe in when I was still too young to realize the odds against me and too naïve to know the hard road ahead.
Marshall was solid proof that dreams could happen. But he also knew what it took to achieve them. As he once explained, “A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks.”
Little did I know that on the day I would be declaring to my first-grade class my dream of following in Thurgood Marshall’s footsteps, I would experience the latter part of that formula for success.
I often hated going to school. This was not because of the learning but because of the fighting. It was a good day if I got from home to school and back again without punches thrown. No one likes being forced to fight, but in our neighborhood, you learned quickly that if you didn’t stand up for yourself, you would perpetually be picking yourself up off the ground.
One reason guys picked fights with me in the first place was because of the way Mom dressed us. She made me wear sweaters and collared shirts to school. Not cool, Mom. I looked like a little doctor walking into the classroom. This was not a good thing for a first grader who was already a quiet kid. I looked different, “smart.” And that was the last thing any of us kids in Park Heights wanted. Just at a glance, the very idea that I might be intellectually curious prompted other kids to want to punch my enlightened face.
My elementary school was a little over a mile from our house. I walked there, along with my sister and other classmates. We didn’t think anything about the blight we saw, the occasional needles we had to step over, or the homeless people we passed. The city sidewalks littered with broken bottles and occupied with interesting characters weren’t the things I dreaded. The fighting didn’t matter. It was the school itself.
The place felt more like a prison than a school, with small, crowded rooms and cage-like bars over the windows and doors. A predominantly White staff oversaw our crowded all-Black student body. Sometimes it seemed that our principal and teachers were more like a warden and guards whose real job was just to keep us there until the bell finally rang and our time was served.
My first-grade teacher was Miss Battle, and I will never forget her. She was a surly woman who seemed to have already made up her mind about me before we ever met. On the first day of class, she placed me in the back of the classroom. A kid named Dontae Eliot sat right next to me. Picture the character of Pigpen from Charlie Brown (you know, the kid always surrounded by a cloud of bugs and dust). Dontae Eliot smelled, and I had to experience his aroma every single day. He also thought he was some sort of black-belt martial artist, so he was constantly trying to do Bruce Lee–style kicks on me. We regularly got into it, and Miss Battle always had to break it up.
Our teacher couldn’t distinguish between one student looking like a little lawyer and the other resembling a homeless kid from the street. It didn’t matter that Dontae was loud and obnoxious while I was quiet. I wanted to be helpful and engage in the class while Dontae just wanted to antagonize me. Apparently Miss Battle saw us as one and the same: poor Black kids she stuck in the back of the classroom.
I will never forget when Miss Battle walked up to my desk and looked at the report I had made with red paper lining the white.
“I want to be a lawyer,” I said to her.
“That will never happen,” she told me with a cruel smirk.
The comment stunned me. It felt like time stood still, as my face turned hot with shame and surprise. I wondered who was watching and whether Dontae Eliot was taking this all in with a smug smile to taunt me later.
Why can’t I be a lawyer? I didn’t get to ask my question. My voice was gone for a few seconds, and Miss Battle stalked away, leaving me sitting quiet and withdrawn at my desk.
My teacher had apparently decided my potential—or lack of potential, as it was. And with a word, the woman in charge of educating and inspiring me landed a blow on me that was more effective than any kick from my desk mate.
But I took exception with her assessment and argued that I could be whatever I wanted to be. Soon my disagreement became shouting, and by the time I was screaming in an attempt to stand up for myself, I found myself shut down and sent to the principal’s office. I was never able to argue my case before the court. My judge and jury made their decision before I even said a word.
Despite standing up for myself in the moment, for a long time after she spoke those words, I was convinced that Miss Battle was correct in her assumption about Michael Phillips. The weight of her disbelief hung heavily on me.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 My Soul Looks Back and Wonders 3
Chapter 2 The Predator and the Prey 27
Chapter 3 How Are the Children? 47
Chapter 4 Bitter Seed 67
Chapter 5 Walking Without Purpose 88
Chapter 6 Crash 104
Chapter 7 Short Money 118
Chapter 8 Tragedy Interrupted 136
Chapter 9 Redemption and Reentry 153
Chapter 10 No Success Without Struggle 168
Chapter 11 Right Turns 186
Discussion Questions 205
Further Reading 215