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A Cry in the Streets of Brooklyn Is Answered by a Prep School

Susan Notes: Every way you look at it, this is a remarkable story. I think I understand NCAA rules about college scholarships, but it seems a shame for SAT scores to rule.

Personal note: My first teaching job was at Grover Cleveland, a school of more than 3,000 students, with class sizes over 30. Located on 500 acres in Connecticut, South Kent has 130 students, with class sizes of 8. St. Thomas More lists a teacher student ratio of 1:6 and a typical class size of 12.

One interesting fact: the percentage of South Kent faculty with advanced degrees is only 35%. At Gover Cleveland, 72% of teachers have Master's degrees.

Tuition at South Kent is $29,900, with another $2,000 for books and supplies.

By Pete Thamel

SOUTH KENT, Conn. During Rob Thomas's first week of classes at South Kent School, an elite prep school in this Rockwellian New England town, he used his first writing assignment in his junior English class as a plea.

In looping printed letters, which looked like the handwriting of a young girl, Thomas wrote a one-page cry for help: "I cannot read or write. I need all you people's help. Please do not turn your back on me."

Thomas's note was not that clear, however. Riddled with spelling mistakes, it had clear signs of what experts later diagnosed as dyslexia. He spelled please "peasl," turn was "tron" and write was "witer."

That admission by Thomas, one of the nation's top basketball prospects, stunned faculty members at South Kent. But they soon found out that it was just the beginning of his story. He lived on the subways as a preteenager, sold drugs for a year as a teenager and could not read at age 17.

This month, less than two years after his plea for help, Thomas, now 19, signed a letter of intent to play basketball at St. John's. He has not yet qualified for a scholarship under National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines, but those around Thomas are awed by his progress since he was found to have dyslexia. Teachers at South Kent say Thomas arrived reading at a second-grade level and he has jumped seven grade levels.

"I don't think many other kids I've come across in my career would have the inner strength to do what he's done," Andrew Vadnais, the South Kent headmaster, said. "If he makes it, this will be a made-for-TV movie."

The movie could open with a chilling scene. Thomas remembers being a 7-year-old in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, looking out the window of his mother's bedroom and seeing a little red van pull up in front of the building.

He immediately grabbed his 6-year-old brother, Scott, because he knew the red van meant they were going to be taken away. They hid on the roof of their building until a woman from the Administration for Children's Services went inside. The moment she did, they ran to the A train, hopped the turnstile and rode for hours. Thomas says he spent most of his childhood running.

There was not much reason to stop. His father was not around, and his mother, who has diabetes, struggled to provide for her six children. Thomas remembers an apartment filled with rats, going days without food, and boiling water in the winter for warmth. Because there was no scrap paper around his house for him to practice writing, Thomas would steam the mirrors in his bathroom and mimic his older sister's handwriting from her schoolwork. Hence, his looping penmanship.

Thomas found two escapes from the gloom of his childhood: the basketball court and the subway. When asked how much time he spent riding the subway, he said, "Most of my life, basically."

Thomas's life slowly began spiraling out of control. He said he began selling marijuana on the street to make money. He estimated that he made about $10,000 in a year, much of which went to help his family.

But Thomas said he hit a turning point when his friend C. J. was killed by a stray bullet after two drug dealers got in a dispute. "That's when I knew it was over," he said.

Early in his teenage years, Thomas found the male and female role models he had been missing in Sean Arnold and Sanayi Beckles. Both were part of Team Roc, the Harlem Amateur Athletic Union program financed by the clothing designer and hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash.

Not long after Thomas began playing for Team Roc, Arnold realized that Thomas needed help. One night after a tournament, he dropped Thomas off in Brooklyn around 10 p.m. At 6 the next morning, Thomas was on his doorstep in Harlem.

"I realized that he hadn't been home all night," Arnold said. "He'd been riding the subways."

Eventually, with his mother's permission, Thomas split time living with Arnold and with Beckles, who are not related and do not have a relationship outside of their friendship.

"It's not the most conventional situation," Beckles said. "We just basically have raised him like he's one of our own kids."

For Thomas, they provided a building block toward normalcy. But even with a better home life, his struggles in school continued. His dyslexia was never diagnosed, and Thomas recalls that when he asked for extra help, teachers specifically told him that they were there only to earn a paycheck.

When asked how he passed his freshman year at Grover Cleveland in Queens and his sophomore year at Wadleigh in Upper Manhattan without being able to read, Thomas shrugged.

"Social promotion was big back then," he said. "At the end of the day, it didn't seem like there was anyone who wanted to help me."

After spending his junior year at Saint Thomas More, a prep school in Connecticut, Thomas hit another crossroad. He had emerged as one of the top basketball prospects in the country, starring in A.A.U. games for Team Roc and at summer camps. He earned the street nickname Poison because his game was toxic to opponents.

That hype, combined with Thomas's precarious academics, made him a prime target for the fly-by-night so-called prep schools that have thrived for the past few years. Thomas heard a familiar pitch from four schools during the summer of 2004: Come to my school, and all you'll have to worry about is basketball.

Arnold heard the same pitch on his cellphone: We'll make sure he gets what he needs.

Instead, Thomas chose South Kent and a more difficult road. The school reclassified him as a junior for the 2004-5 year. South Kent promised a chance for an education.

Thomas bonded with Coach Raphael Chillious, but teachers and others at the school had no idea how long a road they faced. Along with not being able to read and write, Thomas also struggled socially.

"He didn't trust anyone who was white," said Don Mousted, Thomas's English teacher for his junior year. "He just didn't."

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Thomas soon received the dyslexia diagnosis, which was the start of his remarkable transformation. South Kent's special education staff reached out to Diana Hanbury King, an expert in dyslexia. King has studied dyslexia since 1950 and in 1969, founded the Kildonan School in nearby Amenia, N.Y., a boarding school designed for dyslexics.

King was struck by Thomas's story and attracted to his genuine nature, and they met several times a week.

"I was pretty awed," King said. "Here I am this little old lady with a British accent, and here was this huge giant. We made a very good connection."

Many others at South Kent pitched in, too. Chillious's wife, Charlene, and Vadnais's assistant, Geri Haase, all gave Thomas rides to Kildonan. King also made the 45-minute drive to South Kent twice a week.

Soon enough, the same person who had not trusted white people had a white surrogate grandmother in Haase, who worked with him on his reading. That winter, Thomas walked into Vadnais's office, picked up the newspaper and, with Chillious and Haase watching, began to read an article.

"He started reading to all of us, and we're trying to show that we're all not crying," Chillious said.

On rides back from Kildonan with Haase, Thomas would proudly read the stories he wrote with King that day. After a while, he knew the result.

"He'd look over at me and say, 'You're going to cry, aren't you,' " recalled Haase, who said she would have tears streaming down her face.

There have been plenty of struggles along with the tears of joy. Thomas has fought depression over leaving his family in Brooklyn and has not conformed to all of the daily rituals at South Kent, like going to chapel. Chillious and Vadnais have tried to balance discipline with compassion and to keep him motivated.

Many of the doubts about Thomas were eased last summer, when he chose to attend a program at Kildonan instead of playing basketball. His recruiting stock plummeted, but his intentions were clear.

"We realized right away that he wasn't prioritizing basketball," said Paul L. Abbott, the academic dean and senior master, who has worked at South Kent for 41 years. "He was prioritizing school. He wanted to learn how to read. All he's wanted is a chance."

Thomas's chance to play at St. John's next season hinges on the SAT scores he receives this spring and on passing his current classes at South Kent and a few more this summer. Thomas, a forward, said he chose St. John's over South Florida and DePaul so he could stay close to Beckles and Arnold and remain a short train ride from his surrogate family at South Kent.

He also said he felt at home with Coach Norm Roberts and the St. John's staff members.

After Thomas committed to St. John's, he said, he bonded with Eric Rienecker, the director of academic support for athletes at St. John's, who is also dyslexic.

"I stressed to Rob that I know what it's like; my college experience was similar," Rienecker said. "I was successful because of my work ethic. As long as he comes in and works hard, he'll overcome any problems that he has."

For Thomas simply to be on campus at St. John's will be a testament to his will and desire.

"Without basketball, I'd be lost in the streets or dead," he said. "Basketball opened a lot of doors for me to people that really cared. Finally, the special door I walked through was at South Kent."

— Pete Thamel
New York Times


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