We trudged through the snow to the Clayton Starbucks the day after the last big snowstorm. After ordering, Arlo and I peeled off our coats, hats, scarves, and gloves, and grabbed a table. Melting snow pooled at our feet and a grande bold and black tea warmed our hands, while he told me a little more about himself.
Arlo was an NFL agent, worked for Wells Fargo, and even started his own company, before he found his happiness at State Farm helping reps achieve their goals. As a territory sales manager, much of his time is spent mentoring and coaching a 34 person sales team. It’s a demanding role that he really enjoys. When he is not at work or with his family, his time is spent at Elite Football Academy coaching kids or youth training to go pro. “It gives me a chance to kind of give back. It’s really fulfilling.”
Arlo grew up in North St. Louis and attended The Wilson School, then Glenridge, and finally Clayton High School, where his race set him apart. He was in the minority in all of these schools, and he felt lucky to find strong African American teachers who mentored him. His parents taught at inner city schools here for 30 years, but he never questioned that he was getting a better education at Clayton than the kids in the city.
His parents were always an example to him and to others growing up. “Superficial as it is, my mom always wore a suit to school. She was always overdressed compared to every other teacher I knew, but her thing was, she always looked up to her teachers growing up and she feels like it’s her responsibility to give them an example of how to dress appropriately. She felt like the little girls, that may not have anybody else in their life to look at, had somebody.”
When Arlo moved to Mississippi to attend college at Mississippi Valley State University it was the first time he was in the majority since beginning school and that gave him the courage to take more risks. He became the executive editor of the campus newspaper, played golf his senior year, joined the forensics team and was an NFL prospect. “I really grew a lot from that opportunity.” Every time he came home to visit he set aside time to meet with his high school art teacher, Mr. Pearson, who challenged him by asking “What are you learning?” He told Arlo this was the last opportunity he’d have to really work on himself without other obligations in the way. The most important thing Mr. Pearson passed on to him was, “Humility with dignity is kind of the way I phrase it.”
Integration & Education in St. Louis
Just because Arlo felt more comfortable at a historically black university, does not mean he doesn’t believe in integration. “The south is starting to integrate, but it’s not forced. It’s through socio-economics, similar lifestyles. It’s more natural. If you force people to change their mind, they haven’t really changed their mind, they’re just forced to be in a situation. It almost creates an animosity. We have to let natural integration happen.”
Speaking of natural integration, the conversation quickly shifted to the problems with St. Louis' city schools. Arlo emphatically told me that he does not believe education is a right because that takes the responsibility for learning off of the kids. If the teachers spend half the class trying to get kids to sit down and behave, the students who are ready and willing to learn are at a disadvantage. “We can’t change the classroom to accommodate someone who doesn’t want to be part of the process. ‘Oh, we owe every kid education.’ No. We owe every kid the opportunity for an education. To get an education is the kid’s responsibility. If they’ve taken the responsibility for my growth, my maturity, off of me and put it on somebody else… It’s never going to work that way.”
“School is very simple. At the end of the day, a bunch of people who want to learn in front of somebody who wants to teach,” he shrugged. But the reality that city schools are failing while county schools prosper, is something he just can’t understand. “Why do we believe that the economic situation around a school limits the kids ability to learn?” Arlo asked. “There is a kid sitting in every classroom, in every economic environment, that can make it. I mean that really has a big dream and a big goal. Why isn’t our program sitting around helping those kids achieve?”
St. Louis’ voluntary transfer program sends talented city school kids to county schools and vice versa, but the numbers are very telling. From the city, 4,800 students are sent to county schools, while only 130 county students are sent to city schools. According to Arlo this program is often treated as an honors class for talented students. He compared it to sending all of America’s college graduates abroad. “How long would America survive?” He knows, however, that if city parents want their kids to have a good education they typically have just two options. Pay for it, or move.
The Impact & The Solution?
Another thing to consider, is the impact that our failing city schools will have on the entire metropolitan area in a few years. This leaves Arlo with more questions than answers. “We have to look at ourselves and we have to decide what we want to be as a city. Are we ok with the idea that we’ve given up on half the metropolitan area? What is our responsibility? What does that do for us? How long do we get to do this before that problem bleeds out to the whole metropolitan area?”
Whether the problem is in the politics (“We can’t keep electing mayors that allow the school system to get disenfranchised. Why are you the leader then?”), the teachers (“If these teachers can’t figure out how to teach on the salary we’re paying them, we get a teacher who can.”), or the kids (“We live in an environment where people are ultimately not responsible for the outcome of their lives.”) Arlo passionately believes it has to change.
Children & Civic Pride
One of the reasons he’s so outspoken on this point, is for the sake of his own children. Understanding that he can only do so much for them, gets him fired up to make sure they learn how to handle responsibility at a young age. But what can he do as one person? He’s not sure, yet, but he’s working on it. “I’m trying to gather a group of young people who are open to the idea that it doesn’t have to be this way. I haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, yet, but I have to do something.”
The other reason? Civic pride. Born and raised here in St. Louis, Arlo has lived in other states, but ended up back here when his dad got sick to help his mom take care of him. Living other places has given him a different perspective on St. Louis, but he’s still proud of his hometown and wishes more people were proud of our city as a whole. He pointed out the declining population of the city and the gorgeous homes for sale that don’t sell because of city schools. Admittedly, he is angry. “We should stop making excuses and make our city great.”
Listening to his intense indignation at the problems with our city, I suggested that he run for office. He looked thoughtful as he took a drink of coffee. “I think about that a lot.” But, he has qualms about being so beholden to different groups that he can’t be honest about the decisions he makes. He’s certainly not opposed to the idea, but he thinks there is someone out there who is better for the job.
Our drinks were almost full as the clock approached 8:15am, a side effect of great conversation. In the last few moments, Arlo wrapped up our meeting relatively succinctly, “Everybody can’t win at the same level. We have to accept it at some point, without thinking we’re throwing people away.”