Editor’s Column – Come to Canada!

Unlike our Editor-in-Chief, Ms. Offner, I not only suffer from senioritis, but I display each one of its classic symptoms in their direst form. I did not receive a boarding school booster shot, but instead a generous injection of Catholic-school resentment.

If you ask me why I wasn’t in class when I’m clearly up the hill and at the Coop, I’ll probably just shoot you a quizzical look.

In having nearly completed an 80-page senior thesis, I’ve had a revelation about standard ten-page papers. Those should be banged out in 90 minutes and forked over to the teacher with the utmost perturbation, unstapled. If they are returned with anything below an A- on them, it’s likely due to a poor attitude on the professor’s part.

Speaking of assignments, scheduled reading is actually due on the date of the midterm and/or final, and calling on me at random prior to those dates is practically a human rights violation.

That’s why, when I was riding the local A Train in Manhattan last summer, hurtling from the sixth to the seventh circle of hell that is Washington Heights in July, I was so taken aback by a group of elementary school students from Harlem’s Promise Academy 2. They were embarking on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History, but something was amiss. None of these third graders were roughhousing in a public place, or knocking grocery bags out of elderly hands. Nor did they dejectedly fold their arms at the prospect of an educational experience. These kids actually wanted to see gems from the mesozoic period. At the time, I had no idea they went to a charter school under the umbrella of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

When Canada did an interview with Steven Colbert, Colbert asked him, “Why is it important for underprivileged children to succeed?” While most Colgate students wouldn’t dare ask that question, they have certainly been asking why Canada got the prestigious berth as 2009 Commencement speaker, and what, if anything, of relevance he had to say to our graduating class. Well, Canada’s answer to Colbert was surprisingly well-geared toward the mostly upper-middle class students who attend Colgate and their families. He told Colbert, “When my children do better, yours do better also. Because my children are going to end up paying taxes. If my children grow up and work, they’ll be paying for our retirement, and we’ll have someone making sure that all of us have an America I think we can be really happy and enthusiastic about.”

This is an incredibly business-minded approach to the problem of urban poverty, in which Canada hopes to produce a new generation of Harlem residents who pay taxes, earn living wages and contribute to the very entitlement programs from which their families would have instead drawn funds.

He’s even taught them about the stock market, having recruited volunteers from the now-defunct Lehman Brothers to teach underprivileged families the value of investing their incomes. Canada admits he requires $3,500 per child annually to run the program, which I calculated, with the remedial math skills I’ve bothered to retain, is about $35 million per year. But he points out that it costs the federal government $42 million a year to incarcerate the adults living in the same area HCZ covers.

These arguments are all relevant to a class whose students will largely go into the fields of business, law and public policy, which Canada is deft at. Canada is no John McCain or Colin Powell in terms of star power, but he’s also no Leslie Stahl, droning on about her contributions to solving insomnia through her work on 60 Minutes. Nor will he be Eliot Spitzer, blatantly campaigning for his own personal elevation. Instead, Canada will tell us how he’s beginning to turn the massive entitlement system on its ear, using philanthropy dollars to render federal dollars obsolete. In one sense, the urban poor have it worse than most. Unlike the poor of Madison County and the surrounding areas, those in Harlem perhaps could live all their lives in Manahattan without seeing the global cultural touchstones it contains. So, why do these underprivileged kids deserve to succeed? HCZ beneficiaries might end up with senioritis at 22, but the kids on that subway had something I no longer do: things resembling gumption and intellectual curiosity, things many of us lost at the end of junior year. Do we really need to give you a free t-shirt that says “Baby College Graduate” on it, or can you sit through this on your own, Colgate? At the very least, you can get one last practice session for nodding your head intermittently, your eyes glazing over with faux-interest.

For my own part, I’ll be at commencement with bells on, listening intently, provided I don’t sleep in. I heard it’s happening earlier than the 1:20 class I struggle to go to. So, maybe I’ll just get my diploma mailed home.