Thank You, Mr. Cathey

I want to applaud Dasmine Cathey, an athlete at the University of Memphis, for agreeing to be profiled for the Chronicle of Higher Education about his experience as a student athlete. The story hits me hard because I was once a teacher in Memphis; in fact, I was once a teacher in the Memphis City Schools.

Cathey went to Ridgeway High School; when I was in Memphis, Ridgeway was considered Memphis’ #2 high school; my middle-high school was considered #3. I’ve met a lot of kids like Dasmine Cathey: athletically talented but struggling to read and write; passionate about family and near-heroic in his support of his family and friends.

Growing up, Dasmine Cathey hated everything about school—reading, writing, even the smell of books. To him, school was nothing but a needless burden. Once you learned about your ancestors and your heritage, he figured, what else did you need to know?

He still remembers the day a middle-school teacher asked him to read aloud in class. As he mumbled through, clearing his throat on words he didn’t understand, he heard snickers around him. “How can you be so good at sports but so dumb in school?” a classmate asked.

Sound like anyone you know? I’ve taught kids like this. I’ve been the middle school teacher trying to figure out why a kid isn’t thriving. Said one transfer student when I tried to assess why he seemed so disconnected from his work, “I don’t know what the problem is. I sit in back. I be quiet. Why don’t I get an A?”

His sixth-grade teacher suggested he enroll in a tutoring program to overcome his reading problems … He took classes for two or three months before dropping out. “You need the money more than me,” he told his mother.

By high school he still hadn’t read a single book. It took him hours to wade through a handful of pages … But outside of class, things were looking up. He was a finalist for Tennessee Lineman of the Year … Few people seemed to care if he was learning.

If not for football, and his hope of one day playing professionally, he never would have set foot in a college classroom ….

[S]omehow Mr. Cathey slipped through his freshman year with just under a C average … Then he saw the syllabus for …his sophomore history class. How would he ever finish five books in four months?

He knew there was only one way: He had to go back to the beginning … After practice every night, he would  … reach under his bed, and pull out his 10 learn-to-read books … Over the sound of his roommates goofing around, he practiced the basic skills he had skipped over all those years.

Who knows what gives a 19-year-old man the courage to start over?

….

Now that he was finally eligible to play, he put his full attention into the sport­—or as much as his home life allowed. [His coach said,] “He had all the tools you could ask for.”

But off the field that year, his life was starting to unravel. Within weeks, he found out he was going to be a father … twice, with two different women. His own parents were not around  … His father was living in Mississippi, providing little financial support. Then his mom announced she was moving to Florida to live with her new boyfriend. Mr. Cathey’s three younger siblings stayed with an aunt about a half-hour from campus, and he started chipping in on bills and driving them to school and practice.

With a 40-hour-a-week commitment to football, and all those kids and friends to look after [the extended article talks about how he might log 50 miles each morning, driving friends and family to work before going to class - KF], there was little time left for studies.

As teachers, we all have moments we regret and remember with utter clarity decades later. For me, one of those moments was pausing over the list of students we could recommend for National Junior Honor Society. I saw J’s name and thought, “Good grades, nice kid, but I don’t see any of the requisite leadership.” I didn’t recommend him.

A month later, I saw him with his mom and two younger siblings. I had missed that he wasn’t involved in school leadership because he had a single mom and was almost a co-parent in the family. Shame on me. My cheeks flare with the memory of it.

Mr. Cathey’s academic path has been every bit of up and down … “He’s like Houdini—he’s here, and then he’s not,” [the football academic advisor] Ms. Connell says. “I just wish Dasmine cared more. You can’t make someone care.”

He cares a lot about football. But once that ended, Ms. Connell lost her stick. Before, if he skipped class or study hall, his coaches could hold him out of games or put him through extra conditioning. Now, if he doesn’t show up, his grades are all that suffers.

Instead of living on the campus, Mr. Cathey has hopped from couch to couch the past few years—moving six times in his senior year alone—so he can pocket the room-and-board money he receives from the university for his family. He’s lived in some of the city’s most-distressed areas, including South Memphis.

Memphis has one of the country’s highest violent-crime rates, and the south side of town is among its bleakest spots…

This is the truth. My sister spent some time working for a birth – age 4 day care in Memphis for children who were infected or affected by AIDS. On a summer field trip, they were driving through the South Memphis neighborhood of Orange Mound. My sister wondered why so many people were gathered around a gas station. The preschool children knew. They shouted out, “Shooting!” Imagine a world where crowd = violence and it’s so quotidian an activity that a sick four year-old can identify it. (The local news confirmed the children’s diagnosis that evening.)

Fortunately for Mr. Cathey, D’s count toward graduation in almost all of his classes …

For a developmental-writing class his first year, he submitted a two-page paper, titled “Some Important Womens,” in which he was asked to describe common issues or challenges facing characters in several books.

“Fannie Hou Hammer, Irma Muller and Aurthor Mayo-Raggie are important people with struggles, detonations, and failure that surround their environment,” he wrote in his introductory paragraph. “Then I give you my points on, ‘what I thinks the point that I thought it was making?”

For one assignment, he had to look at the covers of 10 magazines he had never read and describe their target markets. “Ladies if you looking for a maganize thats is tagering just you and all about you. Then this one is for you,” he said about Woman’s World. “Telling the ladies how to eat. What diet to be no for your body, and more.”

You can see more of Mr. Cathey’s papers and a graph of his GPA here (just scroll down).

In a later episode, he ends up working, with support staff at each elbow, struggling to identify his major or articulate his skills on his resume.

Wiry and thin (perhaps due to years of underabundant food at home), he is unable to impress the NFL in a tryout.

Fates turn against him again when he is pulled over for speeding, landing a big fine and a half-day stay in jail.

Soon after he was released from jail, he sent Ms. Connell a text: “Dnt u b gvng up on me. Amma gradate,” he wrote. “I need u now mre then eva. We gne do dis.”

But it was too late. During his court date the next day, he missed a deadline for his family-communication class, and his professor­—who had already offered extensions on previous missed assignments—wouldn’t let him make it up. A zero out of 100 would be too much to overcome.

Ms. Connell urged Mr. Cathey to devote his full attention to his other two courses. Her advice helped, as he finished with a C-minus in his leisure-studies class. And he got an incomplete on his senior project, giving him an extra 45 days to complete his paper. He plans to return this summer for his final class, with the hope of still completing his degree.

It’s easy for the reformers to look away from a student like Mr. Cathey or to blame “the system” or “the neighborhood.” Clearly, “the system” did some things well in his K-12 experience, nurturing his athletic talent (if memory serves, Ridgeway High School had a very strong athletic program). Without doubt, family and neighborhood instilled in him a sense of family pride and selflessness that seems unparalleled. And to agree to be profiled by higher education’s newspaper so others can reflect on his experience? Gosh, I sure as heck wouldn’t (couldn’t?) do that.

What moves me about his story is that he so easy could have been my student. Now, I’m a professor at a highly-ranked university who gets great teaching scores because I have amazing students.

But 15 years ago, I was a middle school teacher in Memphis, in a school very similar to that of Mr. Cathey. More, I was a novice teacher, struggling, in a class of 39 students, to reach every kid in a 55-minute period. New to the profession, with a somewhat less-than-orthodox teacher education program, I was doing the danged best I could just to get through the day. (I look at the rigorous training and experiences my MAC students have at the UM School of Education today and see now just how much I missed in my teacher preparation program.)

Had Mr. Cathey been the kid in the back of my classroom (or sitting at my desk — I had 37 desks and 39 students, so sometimes kids sat at my desk), could I have changed his path? Could I have turned his writing around in a single year when, even in an honors class, there were so many who needed help?

I don’t think I could, especially a kid with so many home responsibilities and sports practice sessions.

If I were still an urban teacher, as I once was, I’d be one of those teachers trying like mad to get kids to grow but ill-prepared to single-handedly turn the tides. I would be waking up in sweats that even though I improved lots of kids, the test scores would unlikely demonstrate that.

Instead of being considered for promotion, as I am now, I’d be sweating bullets that Mr. Cathey’s test scores — and perhaps those of other students like him, for he is no anomaly — could nail me as “bad” and shame me by naming me and my students’ scores in the paper.

In reading his profile, I felt my old affections for my students bubbling up again. I have no doubt that had he been my student way back then, I would have had a natural affection for him that the teachers in his article do.

Or would I? Would I be able to see him as a person? Or merely as a kid whose low performance was going to bring the hammer down on me?

What haunts me is that I just don’t know.

Ultimately, in this crazy pushme-pullyou world of funding for charter schools, overriding of tenure laws, “improving” the teacher corps, libraries, librarians, books, computers, politicians and venture capitalists, we educators must recommit ourselves to children. Not the theory of children or children as some kind of abstract lump, but to the individual. For once upon a time, a little boy named Dasmine could run but not read. Testing him more would not have jumpstarted his reading. Only people can do that. We are all culpable, and we will be more so if we let testing serve not to assess how we can help children but how we can punish them — and their teachers.

Thank you, Mr. Cathey, for this lesson.



3 Responses to “Thank You, Mr. Cathey”

  1. Pat says:

    Kristin, some of your best, most reflective writing. Strong point made. Thank you!

  2. Laura W. says:

    You know too well that you are describing my teaching life and my students. I would love for every “reformer” to look into the eyes of my kids. Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

  3. Judy Freeman says:

    Kristin–
    This is so beautifully articulated. There are no easy fixes in education, as you know firsthand. But you know the punishments will continue, because it’s so easy to blame the teachers and the kids for failing, and the underlying cause–poverty–will not be addressed. I do despair about the quick fixes in education and the non-fixes aimed at dismantling things. There are so many Dasmines out there, and we’re not helping them enough. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.

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