As a child, I listened to more than my fair share of jazz music. My father had a deep appreciation of those soulful sounds and he was determined to teach me to feel similarly. My first live concert was to see Ray Charles perform and my car rides were filled with Count Basie and Wynton Marsalis. I may never love jazz as much as my father did, but one song will always stand out to me when I hear its fast paced notes floating through the air – Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “Take the A Train.” I’m not sure whether it was the brass section’s forceful overtures or the subtle undertones of the arrangement, but my father and I would often rewind the cassette (yes, the cassette) to listen to the song again.
In many ways, my job this week is business as usual – this week is the annual week when the A Better Chance staff meets in New York to review applications and refer students to our member schools. What is unusual about this week is that we are staying in Harlem instead of downtown, which means that we have to take the train back and forth to work. As I walked the three blocks to the station to travel to 59th Street this afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had to take – you guessed it – the A train to get to my destination.
As I took my ten-minute ride, I noticed something that I wanted to share with you. When you walk into the subway system, there are three trains that you can take that all are headed in the same direction – the A, B and C trains. It was recommended to me to take the A train because the A train is an express train, while the B and C trains are local routes. As the A train left the station, I had no real sense of just what that meant until I realized that after leaving from 125th Street, the A train didn’t stop AT ALL until it arrived at 59th Street, passing five or six other stops along the way. Thus, the A train gets to the destination faster because the B and C trains make all sorts of stops before arrival, but the A train just keeps moving.
You may ask why this is relevant, especially since New York is not a part of the Mid-Atlantic Region and many of you may never need this transportation information. I’ve noticed over the years that many of our Scholars take the B and C trains in school and make all sorts of stops that aren’t essential. Bs and Cs won’t help you get to your goals at the same rate as As and will often distract you from reaching your goals as expeditiously as you otherwise would. Maybe this isn’t the time for you to chase your everlasting love on social media until he or she agrees to go to the prom with you. Maybe this isn’t your moment to get a job so that you can buy the latest fashions that don’t fit into your parents’ budget. The reality is that, at this stage in your life, your current love affair should be with your books and your job is to handle your business in the phenomenal schools to which you’ve been sent. And the fewer unnecessary stops you make, the faster you will get to your destination.
As you head towards college, your next destination, I hope that you will think about taking the express route this year. As are the highest possible grade, but getting them involves going the extra mile so determine to make it happen this year. So many of our Scholars don’t take the time to be involved in our A Better Chance meetings or to put in additional effort at getting for the SATs. So many never sign up to travel abroad or go on a college tour with us and dare to dream about the possibilities. I want my Scholars to be those young people who are determined to get As not just in school, but in life. I want you to put in the extra effort to not just pass or get by but to be excellent. And in the process, you will bypass a lot of the things that have caused others, who were on the same track with you all along, to fail in reaching their goals.
I challenge you this year to take the A train. And always rest assured that it’s my honor and my privilege to go along for the ride.