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a couple things in their kids—a passion for learning, and a sense of social responsibility, of giving back to their community, Coles says. Coles looked up to them, and aimed to please.
“I’m the oldest sibling, but you probably could have already figured that out,” he says. “I was the overachieving, highly accomplished kid, follows directions well, never breaks the rules.”
There was plenty of turmoil in the wider world when Coles was growing up, which he struggled to understand. He was eight, an age when most people have extraordinary curiosity about the world around them, when some harsh realities became clear. He was attending third grade in Washington D.C. when the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He remembers being sent home from school for his own safety, as officials were fearful of riots. “I remember watching the news footage on a small black and white TV. There was a tremendous sense of loss,” Coles says. “I wondered, how could this happen?”
Not long after that explosive event, the family moved to the suburbs, Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is said to be the wealthiest majority-black county in the U.S. The school he enrolled in was about 90 percent white, which was a reflection of who lived in the local area, Coles says. By 1974, when he was 14 and in junior high, Coles was thrust into a forced integration controversy of the kind that local officials still struggle with today. Kids from the suburbs were being bused into majority-black city schools. As it so happened, Coles, a black kid, was one of the suburban children swept up in the forced integration plan, which meant he had to get on a bus to go to school in the city.
This was the moment where Coles says, “I got my first taste for policy, politics, and leadership,” wading right in to the sensitive issue of race in America. Personally, he didn’t want to go to the school in the city, because it wasn’t as challenging as his other school. So he stepped up and became vocal, testifying in front of the local school board, objecting to the forced integration plan, arguing that neighborhood-based schools were a better idea.
He ended up getting sent back to the school closer to his home. But the suburban experience wasn’t exactly idyllic. He remembers being called derogatory names as a teenager, and being thrown out of retail stores as a shoplifting suspect.
“It just made me angry,” Coles says. “It made me stop and wonder, what kind of person, what kind of adult person, would treat a child like that? Why would you devalue a child, try to dehumanize a child?” He adds: “It’s probably colored the way I think about people who need help, and people who for whatever reason, are disadvantaged, whether it be based on economic status or disease. It makes you a lot more understanding of what it’s like to walk in those shoes.”
None of the obstacles really slowed him down much as the goal-oriented go-getter he perceived himself to be, an attitude his parents encouraged. Not surprisingly, given his willingness to speak out at the school board, Coles went on to be his high school class president. And he followed his plan, going off to college at Johns Hopkins University, intent on … Next Page »