Boy in two hoods
NEW YORK & DEERFIELD, MASS. — This story is not the one we imagined at first. We planned to follow a child on scholarship from a low-income neighborhood to an exclusive prep school. We thought we would be chronicling a difficult journey, one in which the young person confronted isolation and prejudice. The boy we picked did face many challenges - and we were one of them. Having a photographer and reporter trail him into his new life was harder than he expected, and he didn't always give us the access we had hoped for. But as the reporting unfolded, we found a different story. In the end, we felt privileged to witness something wonderful - perhaps even more so for being unexpected.
The South Bronx apartment where Emmanuel Saldana lives (when he's not at school) is a two-and-a-half hour drive from the leafy green and stately calm of the Deerfield Academy campus.
Measured in cultural terms, however, the distance is best expressed in light years.
Emmanuel's neighborhood is a place where, at nightfall, residents feel most comfortable behind locked doors. Yankee Stadium is close by, and so is crime and hardship. The Saldana apartment stands in the shadow of one of the worst and most dangerous public high schools in the United States - a school Emmanuel could be attending if his parents had gone the easy route. But they never did.
That's why, on this crisp and clear September morning, Emmanuel's belongings and immediate family are neatly stowed in a rented minivan steadily heading north.
Emmanuel is about to begin his freshman year at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass. He has received a full scholarship - $35,000 annually for four years - basically a free ticket to one of the nation's best preparatory schools.
There he'll be working and playing with students from some of the wealthiest US families. He'll also be one of a small number of dark-skinned students on campus. "It's not an easy road," says his mom, Socorro Vallejo. "He'll be representing all of us as a nationality. He'll be opening the eyes of people not used to integration. He'll be teaching them."
But in some ways it is a job Emmanuel has been preparing for throughout his young life.
Ms. Vallejo and her husband, Miguel Saldana, always wanted something better. She was born into a Puerto Rican family in a low-income New York neighborhood. She dreamed of college but pregnancy at age 15 dashed that hope. Mr. Saldana, who is half black, half Puerto Rican, came from the same kind of mean streets as his future wife. His adult habits were formed during three tours of combat duty in Vietnam.
Hardworking and ambitious, the two met later in life and soon recognized they had similar ideas about raising children.
Their sons, Pierre and Emmanuel, were bright boys from the start. Vallejo's plan to foster their safety and success was simple: "I worked hard to keep them busy and to keep them close." Trips to the movies, parks, and museums were always made as a family.
The boys had karate and swimming lessons and attended parochial school; they had no time for idly hanging out on the streets. Both were strong students, but Emmanuel, three years younger and hungry for a challenge, poured out an extra measure of effort. Soon, he complained, school was too easy.
He needs to be in a different place, teachers told his mother. She wondered what to do, as parochial school tuition was already a drain on their household income. (She works as an administrator for a nonprofit company; Miguel is a corrections officer.)
Then someone told them about the East Harlem School.
The East Harlem School was created precisely for a boy like Emmanuel. With 60-some students and tuition even less than parochial school, EHS aims to take bright young talents from low-income neighborhoods and groom them to receive scholarships to some of the nation's most prestigious private schools.
Emmanuel enrolled at EHS in sixth grade, fully accepting its rigorous courses and heavy demands on his time right along with its core conviction that every bright child deserves the best. It was a perfect fit.
By the time eighth-grade graduation rolled around, it was clear Emmanuel was a particularly bright star in the EHS firmament. "Every teacher has one or two remarkable kids, and he's one of those," says former EHS English instructor Tahira Williams.
Emmanuel was the shortest of the nine members of his eighth-grade class. He didn't necessarily look the part of a star.
But it was perhaps in the flash of his eyes that his promise showed itself best. His eyebrows arched high and the eyes rolled often, allowing him to express a wide range of emotions - playfulness, exasperation, and perhaps most often an eager, intelligent type of searching.
"He has all the right gifts," says Ivan Hageman, one of the two brothers who founded the East Harlem School. "We get a lot of kids who are solid students but not with that kind of driving curiosity about the world and the way it works."
Not to mention a passion to see the world work better.
When it came time for eighth-grade oral presentations - an EHS graduation requirement - Emmanuel's was sandwiched among well-rehearsed projects on the Chinese cultural revolution, genocide in Rwanda, and child labor in India.
Yet even among his gifted classmates, Emmanuel stood out. Planted in front of a banner he made that said: "Search for Justice," he spoke of the unfair treatment of Vietnam vets - like his father - who were largely men of color.
Unlike some of his classmates, he had no trace of nervousness throughout the polished and compelling presentation. In his large, dark eyes there was no playfulness on this day - just serious intent and even an occasional quick flicker of anger.
At graduation, Emmanuel gave the class speech.
With a deft touch unusual in one so young - tassel swinging to hit his plump cheek with every turn of his head - he again demonstrated the language and social skills of an adult.
He also walked away with an armful of awards, including the school's highest honor for overall excellence of spirit. No one listening to Emmanuel that day could possibly doubt that his abilities made him a perfect candidate for Deerfield.
But that doesn't mean they didn't worry about the transition.
"These kids are in a relatively sheltered environment here," Mr. Hageman says. "They're used to being in an almost entirely minority setting. It's the first time someone uses a racial epithet against them - and that day will come - that's the day I worry about."
It could have been an inauspicious beginning for this new chapter of Emmanuel's life.
After all the hard work, the organizing, ironing, and packing, Vallejo forgot to put any of Emmanuel's shirts, ties, or jackets in the car. And this at a school that requires jacket and tie for admission to many dinners - including the first one.
Perhaps it says something about Vallejo's relationship to her child that she gladly repeated the five-hour round-trip journey the next day to bring his clothes. But it probably says even more about her son that it never appeared to bother him in the slightest.
He simply borrowed appropriate attire from a new dorm mate and then headed out with a smile for his first official meal as a Deerfield student.
Such apparent calm and poise would characterize most of Emmanuel's early days at Deerfield.
"He's a central part of the activity," said Jamie Kapteyn, the faculty resident in Emmanuel's dorm within weeks of his arrival. "He's a very gregarious and happy kid."
"He walks with confidence on this campus," said Jeff Armes, associate dean of admission, in November. "This is his campus. That's what you hope to see but with some kids it doesn't happen till later."
Assimilation for Emmanuel was rapid. He dived into his studies with a passion. Biology and Spanish (a language he heard spoken at home but had never really studied) gave him some early troubles but he quickly requested tutors in both areas and brought his grades up.
In algebra, history, and English, he was ever eager and attentive, his hand regularly in the air with questions and answers.
On the school's beautifully manicured playing fields, he enjoyed both football and lacrosse. Come winter, he made the varsity swim team - an unusual accomplishment for a freshman.
He quickly became everybody's buddy, encouraging new friends to use "Chino" - the nickname his family gave him because they thought he looked Chinese as a baby.
Soon Chino had friends in every class from freshman through senior. He was invited to visit family homes in towns like Rye, N.Y., and New Canaan, Conn.
His parents and brother missed him greatly but were delighted by the reports they received. "He's taken to it like a duck to water," said Vallejo after his first term.
When the spring rolled around, Emmanuel - now somewhat taller and slimmer - escorted a senior girl to the prom.
It seemed a triumph almost as total as could have been hoped for.
And so it was, agrees Emmanuel, finally done with freshman year, and back home in the Bronx for the summer. But it wasn't always easily won.
"It's a lot to deal with," he says. "You're introduced to a world where hockey is the sport instead of basketball. You have to learn to deal with two places, two worlds, at the same time."
At Deerfield, he experienced no racial epithets and in fact no overt prejudice at all. But adjustments needed to be made.
Perhaps the hardest thing, Emmanuel says, is that his new friends don't share his dual citizenship. "I've seen their world but they've never seen mine, and some of them don't even want to know anything about it."
One of the stranger things for Emmanuel was to watch the way money was spent. "I'd see people buying $80 ties," he says. "They'd shop on the Internet and always check the box for overnight delivery."
Emmanuel's monthly spending limit at the school store was $75. He watched some students spend up to $500.
He wasn't envious, he insists. "Mostly I just think that if I had that much money," he laughs, "I could spend it much better."
But what did burn was the way his new friends sometimes reminded him that he couldn't do the same.
"Sometimes they rubbed it in my face," he says. "Sometimes they treated me with sympathy."
The sympathy was the worst.
"Don't give me any sympathy," he says, with a flash of anger in his eyes. "I love my life and the way I live it." What sustained him at such moments was what he learned at the East Harlem School.
Hageman, Emmanuel knew, had lived through much of the same treatment. Half black and half white, he grew up in East Harlem but attended one of the city's most exclusive prep schools on a scholarship.
When Hageman warned his students that accepting the scholarship was the easiest part of the bargain, he knew what he was talking about.
And in sharing his experiences he gave Emmanuel words that the boy held on to throughout his first year of prep school.
" 'Don't let their ignorance disappoint you' - those were Ivan's words," Emmanuel says. "I knew it was ignorance. It made me feel I was the better person, the bigger person, when I didn't react."
But there were also chances for Emmanuel both to teach and to learn.
In a class discussion on progressive taxes, Emmanuel startled a classmate by pointing out that some families might go hungry if their taxes were raised.
"It was a friendly debate but I think he heard me," he says.
But Emmanuel himself was surprised when he got close to a female student from an extremely wealthy Manhattan family. He rather dismissively assumed he knew her type at a glance - until they opened up and talked about family problems one day.
Then Emmanuel was amazed to discover how much they had in common.
"People have to learn to get to know each other before they judge," he says. "And I have to learn that, too."
Freshman year is done and Emmanuel's sights are fixed on the future. "This year was about learning to fit in," he says. Next year will be about moving ahead.
Already his gaze is turned toward college. "Cornell, Duke, Princeton, Brown," he rattles off quickly when asked about the schools that interest him.
But he's also thinking hard, both about the EHS student who will follow him to Deerfield in the fall, and about his brother, who will enter Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., a largely white institution.
"Do the work, cope with your schedule, and remember that if you make one or two good friends in the beginning you're fine because more will follow," is the way he summarizes his advice to them.
"That's what I did," he says, his eyebrows arching upward to express a jolt of happiness and surprise. "And it turned out better than I thought."