Commuting to school with a "Famous" student

"You can call me Famous."

"Why would I do that?"

"'Cause I’m famous. Most people just don’t know it yet."

I first meet James in 2015 when Final 5, the company I founded in Detroit in 2008 to find and share great stories, collaborated with the United Way of Southeast Michigan to respond to the state of the Detroit Public School system. Our goal was to get to know DPS students and work to better understand the forces affecting their day-to-day lives. So we developed "How Might We?", a storytelling project that lifts up the voices of Detroit’s students, their dreams for the future, and their vision for education in the city. We met some impressive kids, and it was inspiring to hear their stories of strength, some of them having gone through challenges to even be there the day we interviewed them. They spoke with so much passion about their schools, at times arguing about what was the best way forward as a community.

There is great power in listening to a 17 year old discuss home, neighborhood, and educational issues in a place like Detroit. They don’t even realize the power of their own words. They offhandedly remark on the challenges of having only one parent in the house, or not getting enough to eat for lunch (the school provided lunches are chips and packaged cheese). And yet they show up every day. I ask if they can see how strong they are and my eyes get met with questions and confusion. A senior named Torrianna said to us, "My teacher always tells me, 'The world you live in isn’t the world you deserve. Which one are you preparing yourself for?'"

There was one boy in particular, James "Famous," whose story really caught our attention. I grew up not more than an hour from where he does, but we might as well be from two different worlds.

"Cody is the only school I could find that would offer any kind of journalism courses. You know Steven A.?" he asks, referring to Stephen A. Smith, the colorful commentator, TV show host, and sports journalist. Stephen A. is from Hollis, Queens, the youngest of six children, and I sense that James feels a kinship with this man who made it out of challenging circumstances, but not on the strength of his jump shot (Smith played college basketball at Winston-Salem State University).

"Of course I know Stephen A."

"Yeah, that's what I want to do. I want to be a sports journalist. And here I can take classes where I'm actually writing, and my teacher, he edits my papers."

Heading to school before sunrise

A week after that first meeting at Cody, I meet James on his porch at 5:30 a.m. I'm joined by
Joshua Magee and Troy Bowman, who are there to help get James's journey to school on video. Shortly after we arrive, James starts walking down the middle of the street and we follow close behind with our camera.

Joshua, Troy, and I have done this many times, so we fall into old habits as Famous ambles slowly down his block. It's too damn early. "My mom and dad told me to stay away from the sidewalk. That way if something happens, I have more time to react." Houses turn to empty fields, empty fields turn to abandoned factories, and we can see one of James's friends heading in our direction.

"Why would you all want to follow James, though? That’s what I don’t get," his friend says with a laugh.

We find ourselves in front of strip mall. Just 100 yards away I see the first stop on our journey -- a gas station. "That’s where we pick up the DDOT bus," James tells us as we sprint across six lanes of traffic. DDOT, short for the Detroit Department of Transportation, runs the bussing system that services the city of Detroit.

While we're waiting for the bus, James plays it up for the cameras, looking left and right, setting his silhouette against the brightness of the gas station. He's fun and engaging, and he makes the morning go by quickly.

The bus arrives. James sits down and we all attempt to follow suit, but the bus is nearly standing room only. Some people seem to be on their way to work and some on their way home. For others it's difficult to tell, as heads slump on seats and windows.

"Every day you make that walk and take this bus?"

"Yep, unless that bus doesn’t show up, which happens maybe once every three days."

"What happens then?"

"We wait 20 minutes or so for the next one. If that one doesn’t come, we have to walk to a different route."

"Man, how bad is it in the winter?"

He looks sideways at me and nods his head with a knowing scoff.

"And if you’re late?"

He chuckles. "They really don’t say too much. Some kids are coming from a long way."

James "Famous"

The bus continues stopping and starting, people get on and off, and eventually I begin to see the downtown skyscrapers. As we pull into the Rosa Parks Station for a transfer, it's only James, his friend, Troy, Joshua, and me left. We're halfway to school and I'm ready for a nap. James suggests we go inside the station to stay warm and wait for the next bus to leave, which arrives about 15 minutes later. Once we’re on, James leans back and, for a few miles, is thankful for earbuds.

I know we're getting closer to his school because more and more kids are getting on the bus and offering James a nod or a handshake. I can tell they're older. "Are you gonna come by the baseball game tonight and get footage of James sitting on the bench?" It's hard not to chuckle along, and even James laughs it off -- he goes through too much to let lighthearted jabbing get to him. But I also detect a bit of agony behind the smile.

I wonder how often he misses school with a ride like this. "Barely ever," is his answer. "I can’t miss school because my parents wouldn’t have it. It was hard to convince them to let me come all the way out here to go to school. I can’t mess it up."

Two hours after we had left his house, the bus pulls to a stop and the students file out. We follow James off the bus where one of the wisecracking seniors is waiting for him. He gives James a friendly punch to the arm and they share a joke.

The How Might We? movement grew quickly. It confirmed our belief that the community values the voice of students. Some of the comments were filled with hope and optimism, others with reverence. I revisit the page now, almost a year later, and realize I hardly remember any of that experience. I'm surprised by the wisdom coming from those students, and I was one of the moderators of the page. I may forget names, quotes, and faces, but I'll never forget the gist of what they said and how it made me feel. The world James is living in requires him to get on a bus and take a two hour ride to school every day.

He’s preparing himself for a world that doesn’t.

Matt Dibble is the founder of Final 5, a company in Detroit which uses story to help organizations build trust. He writes, makes videos, and tells bad jokes, many of which you can find at
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