By Karen Houppert
Sunday, December 19, 2010; W05
Ignacio Evans was 18 and had just been awarded a full debate scholarship to Towson University when his story appeared in The Washington Post Magazine in August 2007.
Iggy was a kid who had a lot of strikes against him. He never knew his biological dad. His mom struggled with drug addiction, and he landed in foster care. He attended Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School, one of four failing Baltimore schools slated for takeover under the No Child Left Behind Act. His odds of success were poor: Only 56 percent of Frederick Douglass students had graduated in 2006.
But Iggy, an argumentative kid, found a way to channel his contrariness through the wildly popular Baltimore Urban Debate League, a program that teaches the fundamentals of democracy -- as well as critical thinking, basic literacy and research skills -- to underprivileged students. Weekly debate tournaments in the city continue to draw more than 1,000 students on any given weekend.
Debate got him into Towson, Iggy says today, but his high school failed to give him the tools he needed to excel there. "They didn't teach me how to really study and retain stuff," he says. Iggy considered dropping out. He felt out of place as a black student on a largely white campus, and once again his bickering nearly landed him in trouble. "I had to learn to do my arguing more tactfully -- in papers," he says.
Several teachers intervened to keep Iggy in school. He credits history professors such as Elizabeth Gray, who "pretty much taught me how to study," and Omar Ali, who "taught me to push" with helping him figure out how to navigate the academic world. Also, Raft Woodus at Towson's Center for Student Diversity helped Iggy by reminding him that his goal was and should be to get what he needed from the school, as he had every right -- and plenty of ability -- to be there. He also joined the Black Student Union. "This felt like the home I didn't have," Iggy says.
Finally, of course, he joined the debate team. While he only rarely hears from his old high school debate partner, Jermol Jupiter, whom he last spoke to more than a year ago when he tried to coax Jermol to enroll at Towson, he has a new partner, Benjamin Morgan. Out of 17 debates so far this year, they've won 10.
Today, Iggy says he's on the "five-year plan" -- taking an additional year to complete his work. He's majoring in history and education, and when he graduates, his short-term plan is to teach history to Baltimore City high schoolers. His 10-year plan is to earn his PhD and start his own school.
Meanwhile, he continues to question what it means to be a black man in America today, personally and politically. Though Towson is only a half-mile north of the Baltimore city limits, Iggy's sense of displacement is profound.
"My biggest challenge is being able to authentically perform who I am in these spaces," Iggy says. "At the very least, debate has taught me to relentlessly defend my position as a black man and to understand my community's needs."
Read the original story: Finding Their Voices
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