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On the Train, Tap Dancing to Pay for College

Susan Notes:

A young man from Harlem finds a unique way to pay his college tuition. I have communicated with Joshua Johnson and am impressed by his "presentation." I asked him for a snail address so I could make a small donation. He provided me with several options: pay pal, a check directly to him or the university phone number and his student ID number--for a donation direct donate to his tuition fund. I'm impressed.

He also has a website. You can get his e-mail there.

Go to the New York Times blog site to see Joshua tapping on the subway. You can also see a short film on his website.

By Krisofer Rios

On a recent Friday afternoon, Joshua Johnson danced down a Q train car with an Air Jordan sneaker on his left foot to keep from slipping and a tap shoe on his right foot to play a beat as he collected money from several riders.

"Thank you, folks," Mr. Johnson told the straphangers. âIf you know Penn State, you know it ainât cheap. Every dollar counts.â

Since he enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Johnson, 20, a Harlem native, has helped support himself through his studies in business marketing with the donations he receives during his weekend performances in the New York City subways.

Most students at Penn State University pay their tuition with scholarships, loans and help from their parents. Mr. Johnson is not so lucky. His mother, an immigrant from Trinidad, lost her job as a home health aide in 2006 when Mr. Johnson was a freshman in high school. Since then, he has performed in the subway to raise money to help his mother. Now, his mother lives in a shelter in Yonkers and he is mostly on his own. When he travels to New York to perform on the weekends, Mr. Johnson stays with friends.

âRight now the hardest thing for me is my living situation.â said Mr. Johnson, a junior. âIâm just trying to find a solid place where I can rest my head.â

When he received an acceptance letter from Penn State, Mr. Johnson saw an opportunity to improve his fortunes. A chance to go to college meant he could get a degree and eventually a well-paying job.

âI was not the smartest kid in school, so my grades werenât the best,ââ he said. âI wasnât planning to go to college, so I was really excited when I got accepted.â

The acceptance however, came with an expensive tuition. The university offered Mr. Johnson a combination of federal grants and student loans. And while he had received a small scholarship for $200 a semester, Mr. Johnson was still responsible for $6,000 out-of-pocket each year.

Mr. Johnson has paid his way through five semesters of schooling with money from generous mentors and the money he earns while working three shifts a week at a clothing store near campus. But the majority of his yearly college savings comes from the trips back to New York twice a month to raise money while doing a subway performance he calls âThe Tap Express.â

While each performance is different, Mr. Johnson has memorized the sharp turns and long bends on the No. 2 and No. 3 lines between 96th Street and Times Square and they are woven into his routine. He jumps before turns to avoid losing his balance and dances into bends to keep steady and on beat.

Six years of tapping on the subway has taught Mr. Johnson that a little groove goes a long way. His trademark is a hip-hop-infused backbeat that bookends improvised elements of his tap step.

âWhen I tap itâs literally an instrument, and I use this instrument to relate to the people on the train,â Mr. Johnson said. âNo matter who you are, you can understand a groove.â

His technique is effective. After a successful day of work, Mr. Johnson can earn as much as $200, twice the amount he makes working at the clothing store. (Performing and soliciting donations on a train, is, of course, illegal, though that hardly stops anyone determined to try to make a buck or two.)

For Mr. Johnson the work is hard and takes him away from class work.

âAlmost every weekend I come back to the city, which cuts into my study time, and itâs hard on me mentally and physically.â he said.

âJosh is not looking for a handout or even a hand-up,â said Ramon Ray, a family friend who lives in New Jersey and is one of Mr. Johnsonâs mentors. âHeâs just working hard to graduate from college and rise out of this.â

The recent child molestation scandal involving a former assistant football coach at Penn State has prompted some subway passengers to ask Mr. Johnson questions about the campus. Some have even confronted him. But for Mr. Johnson the controversy doesnât overshadow his drive to graduate.

âPenn State is a big school and is known for a lot more than what happened, and Iâm working hard for my degree,â Mr. Johnson said. âIâm proud to be a student there.â

The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Johnson understands that graduating is not just important to him, but it is also important to his family. He is trying to set an example for his younger brother and is trying to make his mother proud.

âYou have to figure out a way for the whole family to come up,â Mr. Johnson said. âThatâs what Iâm working towards, to make things better for my younger brother and my mom.â

âI know there are a lot of people that are going through worse situations, and Iâve always considered myself lucky,â he added. âSo I donât complain and I try and stay humble and stay hungry. Iâm in this situation for now, just now, but I know Iâm not going to be here for long.â

— Krisofer Rios
New York Times blog



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