A Shortcut to a Dream, A Fast Road to Trouble

I love clichés. Some of my favorites include: all that glitters ain’t gold, a hard head makes a soft ass, and never trust a salesman. These phrases have lasted for a reason: There’s more than a grain of truth in them. Sadly, all of clichés I just mentioned are applicable to the disgusting bit of news I ran across today.

I hadn’t heard of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a nationally acclaimed school in Louisiana known for putting a good number of its minority students into the Ivy League and other highbrow colleges. But thanks to the New York Times, now the world knows, the school’s founders Michael and Tracey Landry, not only physically abused the kids, they coerced many into lying on their college applications. Rather than do as was promised, provide these children with a quality education that would help to ensure their futures, they did exactly the opposite: They endangered their prospects, and set many of them up for failure.

All that glitters ain’t gold. I’m big on lessons, and learning from adversity, and the bottom line here is, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Wait. That’s another cliché isn’t it? But it’s true, right? If someone is trying to sell you a package that seems so easy and so fabulous, be suspicious. The Landry’s had the game down pat. They used many of the most common stereotypes that black people suffer from against predominantly black working class parents eager to see their children live a life outside what they could provide in the rural South.

When I read the article I thought, damn. Are we seriously that big of suckers for packaging? Pictures, staging, hyperbole, could these things really be so compelling? But then again, Michael Landry was a former salesman, and people believe what they want. Plus, what black mother or father wants to believe that another black man or woman would lie to them?

There was also a fear component as well. When the parents discovered the educational gold they purchased was just painted tin and shit and tried to exit, the Landry’s held their kids’ transcripts hostage or released crappy ones as punishment. Maybe it’s the fighter in me – I was raised to battle injustice, particularly against my family – but I feel like even that could have been overcome with some, shall we say, judicious discussion and persuasion. But then again, I was raised in metropolitan Chicago. The mindset in the South is different. Perhaps it’s more trusting?

A hard head makes a soft ass. Another lesson to consider, short cuts are great, when they work. But those short cuts usually involve transportation and proven hand-me-down information. When it comes to building a better career and life with education as the foundation, short cuts can be dangerous. We live in a world where the disadvantaged – aka minorities – are routinely taken advantage of simply because people know they are operating with a deck stacked against them and very little backup or reliable recourse in the event of a problem. That’s not discounting the truckload of sharp-tooth prejudices eager to snap at their heels the moment they are perceived to step outside their subjectively approved boundaries. I can’t imagine how on earth those parents thought that blatantly lying on a child’s college entrance application was a good idea. But then again, I’m not a parent struggling to ensure my child has a better life.

Never trust a salesman. Now, having said that, all salesmen aren’t bad. Y’all should know by now I’m not one to put people in those kinds of cut and dried, good or bad, black or white boxes. But salesmen by nature are trying to get you to give them money for something you likely don’t need. In this case, these well-intentioned parents wanted their babies to get into the Ivy League or as close as. They wanted the dream. But they failed to consider, is my baby Ivy League material?

I’m someone who thrives under pressure. I do well in situations where my back’s to the wall, and everybody around me is really good, forcing me to be better. But I’m smart. I’m not patting myself on the back here, I’m stating a fact. I’m smart, and my entire life, my parents made sure I had the best education possible.

Not only that, I had to maintain high grades, or my life would have been hell on earth. My parents demanded accountability from me and the schools I attended. In my house, if you thought you were gonna get away with not showing that mid-semester report card, try again, kiddo. And if her bookworm baby didn’t get an A in AP or honors English Lit, my mama needed some firm answers on why. Teachers quickly learned to dread parent teacher conferences with mama Whitney. I came by my interview questioning ability honestly, ‘cuz my old lady’s never been afraid to ask tough questions.

I’m also a journalist. A writer is all I’ve ever wanted to be, and my mind is geared for that. I question everything. I want proof, and I believe in vetting sources. I want to know who you are and what are your qualifications so I can assess whether or not your information is worth considering. I’ve always been like way.

I steered my own college journey with my parents as able accompaniment. I applied to four schools, two in Missouri, two in-state in Illinois. I decided to accept a scholarship to a Missouri state school and then transfer to the University of Missouri where I ultimately got my degree because I didn’t want to be saddled with a bunch of loans after graduation. I was blessed because my parents agreed to pay for one of my remaining two years. Student loans and work study covered the last one.

I’ve always tried – and not always succeeded – to look at the big picture. And I think more people should do the same. What’s the road like a few miles ahead? How does it look around two or three corners?

Getting into an Ivy school is a feat, true enough. But staying there is even tougher. The high cost of tuition, the pressure in keeping up with a storied, tougher than tough academic curriculum, the culture shock of being part of a population of type-A, over-achieving, possibly high-strung strangers, there’s a lot to that type of college experience. I considered it and rejected it. The acclaim wasn’t worth the aggravation I knew I’d feel, and for real, Mizzou was its own brand of highbrow. I don’t know their current rank, but when I went they were number one in the country for journalism. That proves you can get a great education outside of the Big 10.

So, when I read about Landry I wondered, once the high school education was revealed to be faulty, or once the parents learned they had to lie about their child’s abilities and activities to get into certain colleges, why didn’t they ask more questions? Like, will my child be able to make it if they do get in to one of these fabulous colleges?

But that’s the danger of under education, as one of my friends with children said when I talked it over with her. These shysters took advantage of people who likely did not have much education themselves. They trusted that this man who looked like them had their best interests at heart, and many of their children paid the price.

The lesson there is not that poor people can’t dream, or that poor people can’t trust anybody. Anyone can be duped. The lesson is that thieves are thieves, black, white or indifferent. Look, listen, question, follow your gut. Don’t blindly believe a smiling face, even if it looks like you.

I mean, I believe in the unconventional. I’m also not someone who thinks that traditional schooling is always best. The flaws in our school systems are not lost on me with a retired librarian for a mother as well as my own educational experiences to draw from. So, the idea of the Landry school itself wasn’t offensive, but its lack of accreditation was an immediate red flag.

We live in a world where credentials matter. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so gungho to send our children to college to get a degree, especially one from a nameworthy school. Didn’t these parents worry that this would happen? That all would be revealed and their children’s futures would be in jeopardy once someone popped this particular balloon of lies? And that’s after they’ve potentially gone into debt to pay for higher education.

I don’t know. I can’t put myself completely into these parents’ shoes because I don’t have children. But I do know that when it’s as important as schooling, we have to question more, and we have to educate ourselves. We have to be active participants in our children’s education, and be critical of anything and anyone who wants to take charge of it.

Shout out to the New York Times for reporting the story. I just hope and pray that the Landry’s aren’t allowed to build another school. It would be truly tragic if they were allowed to dupe any more well-intentioned parents hoping to use education to springboard their child’s future in the right direction. Especially when at the end of it all they end up tangled in a horrible mess that leaves both child and parents damaged, and the child’s future in peril.

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