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Don’t Say It About Me Anymore: Learn the Story Behind the Man

Susan Notes: Anthony Jack, graduating with honors from Amherst College, reflects on why, although he grew up in poverty, he was never at the bottom. Everyone who mouths pronouncements about the culture of poverty should memorize his essay.

by Anthony Jack, Amherst â07

I hate the overly used adage, âfrom the bottom to the top,â when referring to poor black students, like myself, making it into and/or graduating from colleges like Amherst. I hear it when people attempt to describe me, when they try to get a sense of who I am. Who are they to say that I was ever anywhere near âthe bottomâ? I love Amherst, but what makes my life before coming here the bottom? Before I continue, I must admit that I once believed in this quote full-heartedly. I thought it to be true. Why not? I never had a whole lot of gifts under the Christmas tree; my sister and I never went to Disney World even though it was only four hours away. Hell, my friends were able to afford Lunchables in elementary school when I was on free lunch. But look at me now, a senior at Amherst College applying for national fellowships like the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall. From the bottom to the top, right? Hell no. I finally realized that those were just material things. Being a senior at Amherst is only one step along my journey through life that started, that has is roots, back in Miami. You want to know Anthony Abraham Jack, then look behind the man you see walking around campus today. And you, in doing so, surely will never say that he came from the bottom and is now at the top.

It took years for me to realize just how blessed I truly have been all my life. I was born on December 17, 1984 in Miami, FL, one day after my grandfatherâs birthday, but ten days before his death. I never met him. But I hear stories about his toughness, his determination, his drive, and I know that part of him is within me.

Nevertheless, when he left this physical world he left me a true gem my grandmother Daisy Mae Butler to treasure, to behold. I grew up with a grandmother less than a five-minute walk away; how blessed was I? I had a grandmother to tell me stories of picking cotton in the dewy morning fields of Georgia, family fish fries on their farm, and my favorite, her stories of her mother making everyone sit quiet on the floor in the house with all of the lights off when it was lightning and thundering outside because, as her mother told her and as she, in turn, told us, âThunder is Godâs way of talking to us, and we need to listen.â I learned how to bake cakes from scratch. From scratch! I miss those days with Grandma in the kitchen with those beaters mixing that extra rich cake batter and all that Swans Down cake flour all over the table. My humbleness comes from Daisy Mae Butler, my eternal flower. My love for the simple things in life came from Daisy Mae Butler, my worldly lily in the valley.

I was born into a family of three. I was the middle baby, the âknee babyâ as the middle child is called back home. My brother Greg is the oldest, and my sister Aleshia is the baby. Itâs a funny thing in my home, my brother and sister are never called by their names. I call my brother Deg and my sister Booba. Go figure. And when I think about it, my sister is not the baby. I am. Ask anyone and they will tell you; I am the true baby in the family. Living with these people is not an easy task. My brother is the most selfish person you will ever meet in your life. Deg always has to be the one to do everything. âTony, you need something for school...for footballâ¦for Homecomingâ¦for Prom...for Graduationâ¦for Amherstâ¦let me know so I can know how many extra hours to work.â Simply selfish. He has to be the one to pick up the slack when someone is falling behind or when Momma is just overwhelmed with everything else. He always makes sure that we get to have some fun, even if it means working doubles at two different jobs four days in a row. Again, simply selfish. Sounds like someone you know on the Amherst campus?

My sister is no different. She speaks her mind no matter what. Booba is never afraid to confront you if you are doing something wrong or something that she dislikes. Sometimes she will fuss you out for the hell of it. Booba is the strongest out of the three of us. When she has her mind set, it is set. She can be a rock emotionally, but at the same time, she is human. I love my baby sister because in so many ways she is the elder sibling even though our birth dates say otherwise. When I think that I am wavering too much or giving too much ground I ask myself, âwhat would Booba do?â My sister teaches me about life today the same way she did fifteen years ago. So donât get mad at me when I argue my point to the fullest degree, that is just the Booba coming out in me.

Mommy. Yes, âmommyâ because I will always be my motherâs child, henceforth and forever more. I have never seen, heard of, or read about another person so wonderful. My mother, Marilyn Butler Jack, was born in Miami, Florida on September 23, 1953. She did not know then that Brown v. Board of Education would be decided less than a year later or that she would be one of the first African-Americans to attend Ponce de Leon Middle School. No; my mother is not in any history book, but who she is and her story are part of me. I only have my mother now to lean on now. Grandma and Granddad are gone. Deg has his own family now, and Booba is off in school. Our morning conversations on the phone occur without fail, no matter what is going on in our lives.

Sundays were my favorite days because that meant that everyone in the family was coming by the house for dinner. And we always had a big Sunday dinner: fried chicken, collard greens, oxtails, corn bread, potato salad and rice. But I remember thinking as a child, why is momma always walking a bit slower around the house on Sundays? I never thought to think that she could be tired from working all week and taking care of the three of us on her own. I never thought about how someone can work at a job for twenty-one years and still continue on going every day without fail. I guess youth and naiveté really do go hand in hand. Even though exhausted from the past weekâs duties, she kept going. Yes she stumbled, fell ill at times, and, I would think, wanted to quit, but she never did. Last year, when working an illegal 35 hours a week, I wanted to quit too. I wanted to just throw in the towel, but then I thought about those Sunday morning. I know no one better to emulate.

There is no bigger motivational factor than a motherâs love. Mommy pushed me more than I could have ever pushed myself. She never told me that I had to bring home a certain grade, hold a certain GPA, or get a certain SAT score. She simply wanted and expected our best. Anything less was unsatisfactory to her and worthy of punishment, usually in the form of a belt. And I have to admit, sometimes we deserved it.

One of the happiest moments at Amherst thus far was when I got the collegeâs endorsement for the Rhodes Scholarship. I immediately called my mother, and the only thing she could do was scream. She either forgot or didnât care that she was still at work. Knowing my mother, it was probably the latter. That solitary, piercing scream was enough for me. It was enough for us both. Sometimes words just get in the way.

How dare I, or anyone else for that matter, say that I came from the bottom and now am at the top? Not with a clear conscience can I make this ludicrous claim or allow it to be said about me anymore. I was loved, provided for, and supported. I had a grandmother that shared stories of the âold days,â permitting me to see into the past from my position in the present. I have a brother who would rather torture himself just so his little brother and sister can have the essentials and some of the extra things in life. I have a sister who stands up for me, but more importantly, stands up for herself, a sister who will go to war if need be for her family. And I have a mother, a mother whose love knows no limit, whose determination is unparalleled; whose love has no equal. âFrom the bottomâ? I think not.

You can hear Mr. Jack read this essay, accompanied by pictures, at
the New York Times

Elite Colleges Open New Door to Low-Income Youths
by Sara Rimer
The New York Times

AMHERST, Mass. â The discussion in the States of Poverty seminar here at Amherst College was getting a little theoretical. Then Anthony Abraham Jack, a junior from Miami, asked pointedly, âHas anyone here ever actually seen a food stamp?â

To Mr. Jack, unlike many of his classmates, food stamps are not an abstraction. His family has had to use them in emergencies. His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a yearâs tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jackâs class was close to $48,000.

So when Mr. Jack, now 22 and a senior, graduates with honors on May 27, he will not just be the first in his family to earn a college degree, but a success story in the effort by Amherst and a growing number of elite colleges to open their doors to talented low-income students.

Concerned that the barriers to elite institutions are being increasingly drawn along class lines, and wanting to maintain some role as engines of social mobility, about two dozen schools â Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Virginia, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among them â have pushed in the past few years to diversify economically.

They are trying tactics like replacing loans with grants and curtailing early admission, which favors the well-to-do and savvy. But most important, Amherst, for instance, is doing more than giving money to low-income students; it is recruiting them and taking their socioeconomic background â defined by family income, parentsâ education and occupation level â into account when making admissions decisions.

Amherstâs president, Anthony Marx, turns to stark numbers in a 2004 study by the Century Foundation, a policy institute in New York, to explain the effort: Three-quarters of students at top colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth from the poorer half and 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

âWe want talent from across all divides, wherever we can find it,â President Marx said. Amherst covered the full cost of Mr. Jackâs education beyond what he earned in work-study. The only debt he says he owes is the $41 it cost to make copies of his 107-page honors thesis.

Amherst also provides its low-income students important support, from $400 âstart-up grantsâ for winter coats and sheets and blankets for their dorm rooms, to summer science and math tutoring. At the same time, low-income students are expected to put in at least seven hours a week at $8-an-hour work-study jobs.

But they get to use $200 a month in their work-study earnings as spending money to get a haircut, for instance, or go out for pizza with classmates so they donât feel excluded.

Mr. Jack, who is black and had never been on a plane until he flew to Amherst for his first visit, arrived as an A student, and with a steely focus.

His mother, Marilyn, 53, had guided her son from Head Start to a gifted program in elementary school to a magnet middle school and, in his final year of high school, to the private Gulliver Preparatory School on a full scholarship. But she never had to push Tony, she said. âHe was on a mission from Day 1,â she said.

Mr. Jackâs high grades and test scores â a respectable 1200 on the SAT â won him a full scholarship to the University of Florida. But the median score for his Amherst class was 1422, and he would have been excluded had the admissions office not considered his socioeconomic class, and the obstacles he had overcome.

âTony Jack with his pure intelligence â had he been raised in Greenwich, he would have been a 1500 kid,â said Tom Parker, the dean of admission. âHe would have been tutored by Kaplan or Princeton Review. He would have had The New Yorker magazine on the coffee table.â

âTony Jack is not an anomaly,â he added.

Mr. Jack, Amherst officials say, would likely not have benefited under traditional affirmative action programs. In their groundbreaking 1998 study of 28 selective universities, William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, now the interim president of Harvard, found that 86 percent of blacks who enrolled were middle or upper middle class. (Amherst was not included in that study.) The white students were even wealthier.

âUniversities have prided themselves on making strides in racial diversity, but for the most part they have avoided the larger issue of class inequality,â said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

For Mr. Jack, there were adjustments at this college, where half the students are affluent enough that their parents pay tuition without any aid from Amherst.

He did not let it bother him, he said, when wealthier classmates blithely inquired about the best clubs in Miami â as if he would know, Mr. Jack said dryly â before flying off to his hometown for spring break. Mr. Jack could afford to go home only at Christmas, and the end of the year, when Amherst paid his plane fare.

Mr. Jack is 6 foot 7 and built like the football player he used to be. In his freshman year, he said, he was walking to his dorm one night when a police car seemed to be following him. He recalled showing the officer his Amherst ID and explaining, âIâm a student here.â

In Mr. Jackâs class of 413, 15 percent, or 61, students, are from families with incomes of less than $45,000 a year; about two-thirds of those are from families earning less than $30,000. He was amazed to discover how much preparation wealthier students had.

âPeople are groomed for the SAT,â Mr. Jack said. âThey take Latin to help them with their vocabulary.â

He seized every opportunity Amherst offered â the pre-freshman summer program in science and math, help from the writing center and faculty office hours. âThey didnât just invite me in,â he said. âThey prepared the way.â

For his freshman year, he chose the most challenging classes, including Chemical Principles, even though he had no chemistry in high school. âI didnât feel like I was in over my head,â he said. âI just felt like I was being pushed to the boundaries of my ability.â

He got all Aâs and Bâs his first year, except for a C-plus in chemistry. Sophomore year he plunged in even deeper, taking Organic Chemistry I and II. He got a B the first semester, and an A-minus the second.

âOrganic chemistry was the happiest time of my life,â said Mr. Jack, who tends to gush about Amherst. âEverything started clicking.â

David Hansen, who taught Organic Chemistry II, called Mr. Jackâs improvement remarkable: âHe had the motivation and the desire and the discipline to take advantage of the support that was here.â

Mr. Jack, who is as gregarious as he is studious, found time to mentor other students, serve on committees â and earn an A-plus in calculus last year, one of only 10 A-pluses the professor, David Cox, said he has given out in calculus in 30 years of teaching. This year Mr. Jack was Amherstâs nominee to be a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.

Squeamish about blood, Mr. Jack switched his major from pre-med to religion and gender studies. He said he intended to go to graduate school. For now, he loves Amherst so much, he is staying around as an âalumni fellow,â organizing events on campus. He says he thinks about teaching, or becoming a lawyer so that he can help his community. As for money, he says he just wants to be able to take care of his family.

Thanks to Amherst, Mr. Jack said, he has rewritten the narrative of his life. It isnât about âa poor black studentâ going âfrom the bottom to the top,â as he once believed, he wrote in an essay about his family and all they have done for him. They will be here at graduation, having driven up in a rented van from Miami.

âBeing a senior at Amherst is only one step along my journey through life,â he wrote. âYou want to know Anthony Abraham Jack, then look behind the man you see walking around campus today. And you, in doing so, surely will never say that he came from the bottom and is now at the top.â

— Anthony Jack and Sara Rimer
Amherst Story Project and New York Times



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