Jeter: Put Your Money Where Your Fans Are

I teach geometry, humanities and film at a wonderful, ethnically and economically diverse public high school in New York City. In all of my classes, I push my students to develop a sense of social justice. I ask them to consider how resources can be distributed fairly in our society and what responsible citizens can do to give back. In class discussions my students often ask me difficult questions, like "Why aren't many of the wealthiest people in our country doing more?" My only answer is that many people haven't yet realized the power they have to change lives.

The truth is, my students ask a valid question. When I see the profound impact education has on the lives of my students and, by extension, the larger social fabric, I wonder why those who have so much don't do more for our kids. Earlier this year in my humanities course, I asked the students to pick a passage from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that got their hearts beating a little faster, and to prepare a four-minute presentation on it. Dante (not his real name) chose to discuss the revelation Malcolm had in prison about the value of being an educated person. Dante couldn't believe that Malcolm would read the dictionary for hours, especially since Malcolm couldn't read very well at that point in his life. Dante had the full attention of his 33 classmates. You could have heard a pin drop as the soft-spoken, thoughtful 17-year-old told us how he skipped class during his freshman year and nearly succumbed to the allure of crime, and how easily he could relate to Malcolm's struggle to change. When he was finished, I asked Dante if he had a dictionary at home. When he said he didn't, I brought one over and said, "Now you do." In a quiet and confused voice he asked, "You mean I can keep this?"

As I looked at Dante, I had a flashback. When I was a boy, all seven of my family members ate dinner together every night. After dinner my father and I would sit and talk. He was a New York City police officer who rarely brought his work home, but one night, when I was 10, he told me about a young boy, about my age, who was brought into the station house for stealing some clothes. My father asked the sobbing boy if he knew that stealing was wrong. The boy nodded. "Then why did you do it?" my father asked. "Because," the boy said, not looking my father in the eye, "my mother can't afford to buy me new clothes. I wear the same clothes to school every day, and the other kids make fun of me." My father said to me, "There are always going to be people out there who have more than you, but remember, son, there are always going to be those who have less." For me, being a teacher to kids like Dante is a chance to make up for the injustice suffered by the boy in my father's story.

After 10 years of teaching, I've come to accept that the role I play in my students' lives is limited--some go on to impressive colleges, some go on to prison. I've learned how to be involved with my students on a personal level while maintaining enough distance that I don't allow their difficulties to overwhelm me. Still, something about Dante's response to Malcolm X's autobiography that afternoon left me feeling restless.

On the way home from school I noticed the front page of the Daily News. Derek Jeter had just signed a $189 million contract to play baseball in the Bronx. Later that night I was just sitting, thinking. I thought about Dante and the boy who stole the clothes. Then I thought about something Plato wrote--that it is our responsibility as a society to allow children to develop their talents, regardless of the class to which they're born. There are potential doctors born every day who never have a chance to practice medicine because of neglect on our part.

It occurred to me that for any society to be great, it has to do two things. It must reward hardworking, talented people like Derek Jeter, then strongly encourage those people to share their rewards thoroughly and intelligently with their fellow citizens. I know that money won't solve all problems (give a kid a loving environment over a few extra bucks any day). But why should there be 34 students in each of my classes instead of 25, and why should the ceiling in the gym at school be too low for us to even shoot a basketball?

I'm sure that Mr. Jeter has lots of demands on his money, and my guess is that he gives a fair amount of it pretty generously. But I wonder if he realizes that if he wanted to, he could build a new public school. After all, he'll never be able to spend all of that money in a lifetime. He could change the lives of the thousands of Bronx kids who root for him and are a big part of the reason that he can make so much money doing what he loves in the first place.

Recently, I read that Andre Agassi is opening a charter school in Las Vegas. I wonder if that will help set a trend. Is it so hard to imagine that a few years from now Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams will be in the Yankee clubhouse talking about something like how to hit Pedro Martinez, when they'll turn to each other and ask, "By the way, how's your school doing?"