Last week, a high school teacher in Oakland published this open letter entitled “Dear Steph Curry: You’re the Man, But Please Don’t Visit My High School” to Stephen Curry, the current NBA MVP and star point guard for the Golden State Warriors. I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the content of the letter (please read it for yourself before you read any further), but the general message is clear – this teacher, while admittedly a huge fan of Steph and the Warriors, does not want Curry coming to visit the high school where he teaches. His basis for this request is that he feels that his students are too wrapped up in their own unrealistic dreams of playing in the NBA one day, that their preoccupation with basketball comes at the expense of their learning and exploration of other career paths, and that a visit from Curry would only make things worse.
The letter has been pretty widely circulated across the Internet, and has drawn a lot of praise from various circles. People have rallied around this teacher and commended him for his brutal honesty and realism, for wanting his students to be more practical about their futures, and for decrying our country’s culture of celebrity worship.
Indeed, it is clear that this teacher wrote this letter with the best intentions, and that he cares for his students deeply.
But much of it felt extremely problematic to me, for a number of reasons…
“You won’t say that since the day you were born you had a professional one-on-one tutor who helped you hone your skills on a daily basis. Your father Dell Curry was an NBA great just like you are after him, but you will not remind the poor kids at my school that they have never had such a wonderful instructor and they never will.
And if you do ever visit my school, you also won’t mention that along with your father’s success came all the monetary rewards none of my students have, like three square meals a day; a full sized court and hoop in the backyard; a sense of safety; a mother and a father; top schools, top peers, and community resources. I know you might not think of it like this, but you might as well have come from another planet. But you won’t say that, will you?”
The author makes a lot of assumptions about both Curry and his own students. First, let’s address the assumptions he makes about Curry himself. He begins by explaining Curry’s inherent advantages in his development as a professional basketball player. There is certainly some merit to this, and the advantages Curry had growing up were undeniably key factors to his success. After all, Curry is the son of a former NBA player – he was exposed to elite training at a very early age and his family never had to worry about their financial situation.
It might seem ridiculous to assert that a top-10 draft pick and son of a former NBA star was an underdog. However, simply looking at Curry today and writing off his success as one of genetics is as equally ridiculous. The truth, as with most things in life, lies somewhere in between the two extremes.
Despite his lineage, Curry was by no means a star basketball recruit coming out of high school. Coaches and scouts said that although he was a great shooter – a skill undoubtedly inherited from and honed by his father – he was just not tall enough, not strong enough, and not fast enough. As they saw it, his effectiveness would be severely limited at higher levels, where he would be playing against people who were bigger, faster, and stronger. After not receiving any scholarship offers from major Division I schools, he went to Davidson College, a small, private liberal arts college in North Carolina that boasts a student body of less than 2,000 undergraduates. But Curry faced this challenge head on and worked incredibly hard to show that he could still play at a high level. He led the underdog Davidson basketball team to a few deep runs in the NCAA tournament, becoming one of the nation’s leading scorers and best players.
Still, when it came time for him to leave college and enter the NBA draft, we heard the exact same criticisms – he was a great shooter, sure, but he just wasn’t athletic enough to compete. Additionally, scouts and draft experts questioned whether he had the passing, ball handling, playmaking, and defensive abilities to effectively play point guard in the NBA, as it was already a foregone conclusion that he was too short to play shooting guard.
And yet, through more practice, more hard work, and more dedication, Curry has become the face of a new basketball generation. He is the league’s MVP, the best player on the best team, and will compete for a championship against LeBron James in the NBA finals tonight. He has reached the pinnacle of his profession. At this point, it’s easy to look at his success and claim that it was all preordained, but doing that does a tremendous disservice to all of the hard work that Curry has put into his craft – perhaps even more alarmingly, it does a tremendous disservice to kids in positions where they’re deemed not “enough” of something. (Of course, we have to view Curry’s obstacles in context. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Curry’s “struggle” to become an NBA superstar is on par with facing a challenge like generational poverty.)
Now that we’ve debunked the misconception that Steph Curry’s success was predetermined, I would also like to point out the assumptions that the author seems to make about Curry as a person. He’s careful to clarify that he believes Steph is a wonderful person, but then still contends that he would have nothing of any real practical, educational value to say to his students. First, let’s remember that Curry went to Davidson, an elite school that consistently ranks among the best colleges in the country. He is an incredibly intelligent person, and as someone who went back to school to complete his degree while playing in the NBA, he clearly understands the importance of education. He has also proven himself to be an extremely compassionate person. For the author to merely assume that Curry would have nothing of practical value to say to his students seems to be an offensive underestimation of Curry’s intellect.
People like Steph Curry or Beyoncé – whom the author also mentions as an example of someone he wouldn’t want to visit his high school – have incredible talents, work ethics, and, yes, luck. Does that mean that they can’t positively influence young adolescents who may not have those same exact talents (but certainly have other talents to be discovered and nurtured), work ethics (at this point in their lives), or luck? Absolutely not. Along with not giving enough credit to Curry, it seems like the author also severely underestimates the capacity of his students to learn and grow.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer for The Atlantic, said as much in some tweets the other night:
Assumption is Curry is SOLELY a dumb jock and has nothing to say about the importance of practice or problem-solving, for instance. @greebs
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) June 3, 2015
“Because the worst thing you won’t tell them Steph, is that they can’t do it. You won’t tell them that will you? You won’t be able to bring yourself to tell them it is already too late.”
Everything I’ve said above about Curry is largely the result of me being an NBA nerd and knowing so much about him. That the author manages to neglect to acknowledge all of this information despite claiming to be a huge fan is, really, beside the point. That isn’t what I found to be most problematic about the letter.
What I found most unsettling was the author’s sense of resignation toward his students’ futures. Of course most of his students will not become NBA players (in all likelihood, none of them will); we know this because of basic statistics and probability. No one is disputing that – it isn’t the point here. The point is that the author seems intent on depriving his students – who, lest we forget, are children – of dreaming big.
Uncomfortable truth: By the numbers, becoming a brain surgeon is also an “unrealistic goal” for a poor black kid. http://t.co/8qXiRE3gql
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) June 2, 2015
A central part of this discussion that cannot be ignored is that most of these students are students of color and/or students living in poverty. The author’s thinking, from what I can tell, seems to be that their athlete worship and dreams of playing in the NBA detract from their academic engagement and achievement, and that this is especially harmful because his students don’t have something to fall back on in the way that more privileged students do.
As I’ve said, the author’s intentions here are clearly good. He’s trying to help his students in the best and perhaps the only way he knows how. Still, let’s consider the implications of this letter for his students. Why are sports and big dreams bad things? His students’ idolization of celebrities is not at all unique – it’s something that exists across racial, class, age, and gender lines. (I mean, let’s be honest here – how many of us would trade our careers now to be a celebrity or professional athlete? I would wager that most of us would.) The way I read the letter, there seemed to be an implication that because his students are affected by poverty, they don’t get to have those dreams. There is a tone of wanting to keep people down, of trying to temper children’s hopes and dreams. That is quite literally the principle of oppression.
The message I took was, Don’t have such high aims – c’mon, be realistic. But there is a fine line between realism and pessimism. What so many have lauded in this letter as brutal honesty instead came across to me as pessimism.
The author’s students’ love of basketball and athletics should certainly not be viewed as a weakness. If anything, it’s a strength – a foundation that their teachers can use to increase engagement and thus improve student learning. Research tells us time and time again that connecting the curriculum to students’ everyday lives is one of the best ways to enhance student learning. With careful, thoughtful planning and collaboration, surely this teacher – and any teacher, for that matter – should be able to capitalize on their students’ interests in order to help them grow academically.
If, as educators, we want to be advocates for young adolescents, then we need to make it clear to our students that we believe in them and that we will support them. Rather than worry about the specific nature of their goals, we should be more concerned about whether students are pursuing something they love, and are working hard to achieve their goals, learning the value of commitment and perseverance along the way. We need to let students know how badly we want them to succeed, and we should never – never – stop kids from dreaming.