The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Viral story leads to donations of $1 million for coach of underdog debate team

Jonathan Conyers, holding Jonathan Conyers Jr., visits his high school debate coach, K.M. DiColandrea, at New York City's Stuyvesant High School on May 10. (Gabriel Taliaferrow)

It wasn’t until Jonathan Conyers was an adult that he realized how much his debate coach helped him as a struggling high school student with two parents addicted to drugs. And also how much his coach, K.M. DiColandrea, must have been silently struggling with his own issues.

So when Conyers, now 27, recently pitched a story about his life to Humans of New York, a blog with 20 million social media followers that tells the stories of everyday New Yorkers, founder Brandon Stanton wanted Conyers to tell his own story, he said.

“I said, ‘You know what? I think I’d rather honor my teacher. How about if I talk about DiCo?' ” Conyers said in an interview with The Washington Post, using his coach’s nickname.

And that’s how last week, millions of people hung on Conyers’s every word as his story unfolded on Instagram — and then donations of more than $1.2 million started pouring in for DiColandrea to fund his debate club.

“It’s been overwhelming in the best possible way, but this is much bigger than me or Jonathan,” said DiColandrea, who had just spent his savings — $6,000 — to fund the team.

DiColandrea and Conyers first met in 2009 when Conyers was 14. Conyers had just broken into a home and avoided charges for it when he was admitted to the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, “known as the school you wanted to go to if you were a Black boy,” Conyers told Humans of New York.

The principal sat him down and told him to find an after-school activity. Conyers, then a freshman, wandered into the debate room.

“The coach was this little White lady named Ms. DiColandrea, but everyone called her Ms. DiCo,” Conyers, 27, told The Post.

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He eventually learned that DiColandrea was in the process of transitioning from female to male. Everyone in the debate club was supportive, Conyers said.

“She looked like a kid, but I was struck by her power when she spoke,” he said. “That first day, I sat in the back of the room to listen and then I just kept going back every day.”

Conyers thrived in the club, a scrappy underdog group that often competed against private schools and other privileged students. Much of his success was due to DiColandrea, Conyers said in the Humans of New York post:

“If she ever saw that my clothes were wrinkled, she’d offer to wash them. And when I didn’t have any money, she’d cover my tournament fees. Ms. DiCo knew that home was hell for a lot of us, so some nights she would stay until 8:30. She taught us how to focus and study. … At night I’d go home and stand in front of the mirror with pencils in my mouth — just to practice my articulation.”

In the post, Conyers detailed a debate tournament they competed in at Harvard:

“Everyone was looking at us. It’s not every day you see a transgender teacher with all these big … black kids. And it was very obvious that we poor. Everyone else was wearing ironed dress shirts and khakis. We’ve got plain White tees and sandals.”

Conyers didn’t win, and his coach thought it was unfair, and angrily challenged the judges, then Conyers, he recalled.

“He was like: ‘Why aren’t you more angry? You worked so hard for this.’ And I’m like: ‘I dunno, DiCo. This is normal life for me.’ And he’s like: ‘Well, you better start caring more. Or this is going to be your life forever.’ ”

When Conyers graduated, he received a scholarship to attend State University of New York at Stony Brook to major in respiratory therapy.

He now works as a respiratory therapist in the newborn intensive care unit at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. DiColandrea, 37, now teaches American history at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School.

The two have stayed close, and Conyers is a board member on DiColandrea’s Brooklyn Debate League. The program provides free debate training and access to tournaments for teens who otherwise might not have the means to participate.

When Conyers recently learned that DiColandrea had drained his savings account of $6,000 to keep his debate league going, he wanted to help.

He sat down and poured out a dozen emotional stories about his own past struggles, and how whenever he’d felt down, it was DiColandrea to whom who he turned.

After Conyers’s stories were posted by Humans of New York, Stanton quickly set up a GoFundMe page to help DiColandrea recoup the $6,000 he’d spent to keep afloat the Brooklyn Debate League.

In the GoFundMe, DiColandrea wrote about why he created the program.

“The community is dominated by private schools, parochial schools, and rich kids. BDL is safe space for all kids: queer and trans children, kids of color, kids from all income brackets, kids who are national champions and kids who have no experience in Speech and Debate. No matter what their story, we’re here to help them tell it,” he wrote.

Conyers said the massive response left him speechless.

“It’s a dream to be able to honor DiCo in this way and let the world know that people like him exist,” he said.

DiColandrea said he was also stunned, and plans to use the funds to get more kids get involved.

“These last few years have been the hardest ever for teachers around the world,” DiColandrea said. “They’ve been asked to step up in impossible ways. Millions of teachers are quietly making an impact like I did with Jonathan, so I hope our story reminds people of that.”

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He said he always had faith that the quiet freshman who sat in the back of his classroom would one day do good things with his life. Conyers is now married and has three children with his high school sweetheart. DiColandrea is a godfather to his 9-year-old daughter, Emily.

“Jonathan was the sweetest, smartest, hard-working kid,” he recalled. “He came to every single practice, every single tournament. But I had no idea at the time that I was making such an impact.”

DiColandrea said he was quietly dealing with a lot in his own life as a transgender teacher.

Conyers said he now wishes he had offered more support.

“I feel bad that I’d never asked, ‘How are you doing? How was your day?’ ” Conyers said.

“I never sat down and wondered what it was like to be DiCo,” he told Humans of New York.

DiColandrea said he was deeply moved when he read Conyers’s stories. DiColandrea had found solace in debate club as well when he was in high school a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and felt traumatized after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Today, kids are also coming through something traumatic with the covid pandemic,” said DiColandrea. “In the spring of 2020, we were counting the sirens of 60 to 70 ambulances a day while kids were stuck at home, removed from their support groups.”

Giving teens a space to talk about the burdens in their lives is what drew him into coaching debate to begin with, he said.

That wasn’t lost on Conyers.

“I hope I’ve made him proud,” Conyers said.

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