Solving the Mystery of Underachievement

Nick Ehrmann:

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed pathbreaking legislation to provide many of the state’s residents with tuition-free enrollment at public community colleges and four-year universities. In the swirl of commentary, which ranged from measured applause to outright skepticism, I could only think about one thing: the life of Travis Hill, a young man I met in the winter of 2000. Bright and conscientious, Travis joined my fourth-grade classroom at Emery Elementary School in the Eckington neighborhood of Washington, D.C., less than two miles north of the U.S. Capitol. He participated consistently in class, rarely missed a day of school, and tried to mask the emotional vacuum created by his father’s murder on the streets of D.C. Over the course of the year, he shared his thoughts with such careful depth that I began calling him “the philosopher.” We stayed in touch, and during his junior year of high school, I watched the same flashes of brilliance layer into his term paper on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. “The universal truth is we all start out as righteous,” he wrote, “but sometimes we sin to the point of no return.”