The friend request popped onto Josh Kaplowitz’s Facebook page one afternoon. He was at his office at a top-shelf D.C. law firm, but the name on the screen transported him to a very different place, a decade earlier, to a time of humiliation and failure.
Just seeing Raynard Ware’s name that January day in 2012 spiked the young lawyer’s heart rate. His first thought: “You ruined my life.” It had been only in the past few years that Kaplowitz had been able to live without The Incident looming over him — the assault allegation, the arrest, 33 hours in a detention cell, trial, acquittal, a $20 million lawsuit against him, the impossibility of knowing if he would ever really recover.
Even now, with a new career and a family, Kaplowitz had yet to tell his children about what 7-year-old Raynard had said he had done to him. Kaplowitz hadn’t even told his kids that he had been a D.C. public school teacher — an idealist fresh out of Yale who thought he was going to help transform the lives of poor, inner-city children but who was instead besieged by unruly kids and, then, in a whirlwind of accusations and acrimony, was said to have pushed a 7-year-old to the floor.
Now, this friend request, from the very second-grader whose complaint had brought a rush of police to Emery Elementary School, a trauma compounded when Kaplowitz reported to a D.C. police station and found himself tossed into a cell and temporarily forgotten because it was Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorists were attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
What now? Click “Confirm” and maybe the kid is looking to vent a decade of anger, or seeking revenge, or pressing for money. Click “Delete Request” and never find out what happened to Raynard, something the former teacher had wondered unnervingly often.
Kaplowitz sought advice from his wife, whom he’d met just four days after The Incident. No, she said, leave it alone — hasn’t he caused you enough grief? He asked his parents, who said, as ever, that they would support him whatever he decided. He reached out to old friends from that disastrous year in Teach for America and they said, Josh, you know you need to do this.
“Josh told me years ago that one of his frustrations was that there was no happy ending back then, and happy endings are important,” says Wren Miller, a friend Kaplowitz met at the Teach for America training class in Houston the summer before they entered D.C. classrooms.
For days, Kaplowitz stared at the friend request. Finally, he clicked: “Confirm.”
1/23/2012, 2:37 pm
Hey, Mr. Kaplowitz I’m Raynard as you can see. I just wanted to say I’m doing well. I graduated high school with a 3.6. I also had scholarship offers from Georgetown, Yale and Morehouse. I choose to attend Morehouse because I felt I wasn’t prepared for Yale or Georgetown. ... I’ve re-evaluated the past incident and I just want to say I apologize for everything that happened. I would really appreciate it if I could hear back from you. ttyl!!
Six hundred and 40 miles away, on the bucolic campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, the professor in Spanish 202 calls Raynard Ware to the blackboard. The assignment is to write a sentence using the present perfect tense to express your determination to achieve a specific goal by a certain age.
“Para los 30, yo habré tenido una grande casa,” Ware writes. Before I am 30, I will have a big house. The exercise continues: By 24, he will have an MBA. By 35, he’ll live as a business executive in San Francisco. (He has never been there, “just read about it on Forbes.com,” he says.)
Ware is 21 now, a senior in college, a defensive back for the Morehouse Maroon Tigers with a knack for intercepting the football. He wants to work for JPMorgan. He will not return to the tough streets where he grew up; that much he knows for damned sure. His father, Joseph Ware, died when Raynard was 6, choked to death on pepper spray that police deployed against him in a robbery gone bad, or so the family story goes.
The father — a drug user and seller who spent years in prison, according to family and friends — was never really around when he was alive, but Ware keeps a pair of photos in his phone, showing himself and his father in similar poses. Their resemblance is striking. Ware wrote a caption: “Similar in stature, different grind. You’re the reason why the level of focus.”
On the football field, in school, among friends, Ware is quiet, but you can see him listening, deciding what matters. In his marketing class, Ware, spiffy in a maroon sport jacket with the college seal emblazoned on his chest, copies a list of “Eight Ways to Declutter Your Mind” that his professor is reading aloud. Three hit home: “Accept what is,” “Be kind to yourself” and “Find what doesn’t serve or interest you and let it go.”
The past is motivation, Ware says. It’s how he defines what he doesn’t want. His mother had three children by three men; Ware is determined not to have any children until he is married, and to marry once and forever. His father wasn’t there “to teach me to be a man”; Ware is on the hunt for male role models.
Mr. Kaplowitz knows the path to honest success, Ware found himself thinking in his dorm room. He started freshman year with doubts about whether he belonged on a campus where many other students had parents who were lawyers and doctors and executives, where students seemed to know they would do fine even if they didn’t do the assigned readings.
Ware believed his doubts grew out of the years after The Incident, when, tagged as a troublemaker in need of special education, he was assigned to classes full of kids who had been labeled slow, disruptive, deficient.
“Raynard was a shy little thing when I met him,” says Natalie Randolph, a science teacher at Alice Deal Middle School who was Raynard’s football coach and environmental science teacher at Coolidge High School. “He was well-mannered and not that willing to come out of his comfort zone. But he was the hardest worker, and he always wanted to know why stuff happens. We called him the Little Philosopher.”
Until late in high school, Raynard was still in special education, a label he and some of his teachers believed he needed to shed.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I misbehaved a lot,” Ware says, “but I didn’t think I needed to be in special ed. They had me riding the short yellow bus with people who couldn’t function on their own. I was talked about. One of the drug guys next door where we lived saw me come off the short yellow bus one day, and he said, ‘Ray, I didn’t know you was retarded.’ I went in my house and cried.”
A couple of teachers in high school recognized his smarts and potential and worked to get him out of special ed and on a path to college. Coach Randolph’s goal for Raynard was to enroll him at Morehouse. “I knew he would thrive there,” she says.
It took a while, but he did. Alone in his room in the house he shares with three friends — Ware drives a 2002 BMW 325 he bought with the money he got from his mother’s settlement with the D.C. public schools — he thinks about what he was just a few years ago and how to get where he wants to be.
“I always feel like I got to prove a point because people doubt me,” he says. Now, when Ware goes home to the District, he sees that drug guy who called him names, “and I don’t say anything. I say to myself, ‘Look at me now.’ ”
On campus, after those rocky first few months in 2011, Ware came into his own. He got playing time on the gridiron. His academics started to click. He found his passion in finance and marketing. Guys on the team asked him for advice. Women admired him. Ware felt ready, and needy, and curious, all at once.
Look at me now: He Googled Mr. Kaplowitz, checked out his Facebook page, then, without consulting his mother or anyone else — “I just felt like I’m an adult now” — sent the message.
Mr. Kaplowitz’s room was, by all accounts, a zoo. Even in a school where nearly every male teacher was accused of grabbing, pushing or hitting a child, Kaplowitz stood out: Six of his 18 students had emotional or learning problems, and teachers, administrators, parents and students knew he was unable to keep order.
“There was no control,” Ware recalls. “Kids were throwing trash, not sitting down. I don’t remember doing work. The homework would be handed out, and I’d just ball it up and throw it away.”
Kaplowitz, the son of two doctors, chose Teach for America over a job he had been offered analyzing public opinion data for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. At 22, he believed he could make a huge difference in his students’ lives. He visited their parents at home, took kids on trips, even wrote raps for his students to perform: “Yo, listen close, this is wakeup time / This is Mr. K’s class and we’re laying down some rhymes / See, there’s so much more to education / Than filling in bubbles for test preparation.”
“I thought I was this white knight coming in and rescuing these kids,” he says. “I was really clueless.”
But by spring of his first year, Kaplowitz was ready to cry uncle. He had asked to be moved to another school or be given older students. Instead, he had been shifted from fifth grade to an even more challenging second-grade class.
On June 13, 2001, Raynard asked his teacher for permission to go to the bathroom to get some water, a ploy he had used before to get out of class. He asked and he asked — at least 30 times. Kaplowitz had decided not to fall for that ruse again.
“Lord, I was badgering him,” Ware says. “ ‘Can I use the bathroom? Can I use the bathroom?’ ”
Finally, Kaplowitz decided he needed to get Raynard out of the room to have any chance of restoring order, even if it meant giving in to an obvious ploy.
The teacher told Raynard to leave, stepped over to him and, he says, put his hand on Raynard’s back to usher him out. The verbs Kaplowitz has used to describe his action are “guide,” “lead” and “help.”
The verb Raynard used a few moments later, when he showed up in the school office — where his mother was meeting with administrators about getting her son into a special ed class to get closer attention for his behavior issues — was “push.”
He uses that word even all these years later: “I remember him pushing me out of the classroom. He slammed the door hard, and I heard it, and I was crying.”
His mother, Sharlene Ware Mullings, recalls seeing her child crying, in pain, describing falling to the floor. “Raynard as a little kid had integrity,” she says. “He would tell on himself. So I never questioned it when Raynard said he fell on the back of his head.”
When school officials heard the boy say he had hit his head, they called an ambulance and the police. Kaplowitz was questioned for two hours. He would never return to his class. This was the fifth allegation that he had touched a student — a violation of a rule the school was strictly enforcing amid an epidemic of allegations against teachers. One father filed a report against Kaplowitz after the teacher had pulled the man’s daughter off a boy she was sitting on and punching; the teacher was cleared in that case and others that were investigated. Still, two days after the incident with Raynard, Kaplowitz was fired.
That summer, he was charged with a misdemeanor count of simple assault. His lawyer arranged for him to turn himself in to police on Sept. 11, 2001. A booking that should have taken a few hours became 33 hours of detention as D.C. police shifted into emergency mode. Kaplowitz slept on a metal slab and ate bologna sandwiches.
After a six-day trial — including testimony from the school’s chief security investigator that Raynard was not crying and showed no sign of injury after the incident — the judge found Kaplowitz not guilty, concluding that the criminal case was being driven by the $20 million civil suit Raynard’s mother had filed.
That civil case never made it to trial. The school system settled for $90,000; after lawyers’ fees and other costs, about $50,000 was set aside for Raynard. The entire ordeal became the subject of a Washington Post Magazine cover story I wrote in 2003.
“I never hurt a kid,” Kaplowitz says. “But I was not a good teacher, and I yelled a lot. I was in the survival mind-set of getting through the day. If there’s one thing I try to block out, it’s what a lousy teacher I was most of the time.”
1/31/2012, 10:05 pm
Raynard — it’s a pleasant surprise to hear from you, and great to find out how well you are doing. ... I have gained some perspective of my own over the last 10+ years, and I now have a son who is the same age as you were when you were in my class. While I deeply appreciate your apology, you should know that I don’t blame you and never took anything that happened personally. The whole thing obviously had a big impact on my life, but I’m doing well now with a family and a new career as a lawyer. ... I’d be happy to meet you to catch up further. ...
“Guess what, Mom? I talked to Mr. Kaplowitz.”
Ware’s call to his mother, who now lives in Charlotte, where she works for a pharmaceutical company, stopped her cold.
“How did you do that?” she said. “What for? Why? Why would you open a can of worms?”
“It’s all about forgiveness,” Ware explained.
He has never backed away from his contention that Mr. Kaplowitz did something he shouldn’t have: “You can’t put your hands on kids in classrooms, so he was wrong.”
But what jumped out at Kaplowitz as soon as he accepted the friend request was Ware’s apology. Vague as it was — “I want to say I apologize for everything that happened” — Kaplowitz says, “I took it as ‘I’m sorry I made up that accusation.’ ”
Elated, the lawyer assured his former student in their first phone conversation that “You don’t need to apologize — you were 7, I have a 7-year-old now. Let’s do lunch.”
That first meeting, at the Austin Grill on E Street NW near Kaplowitz’s office, was awkward. They didn’t talk about The Incident. They talked mainly about Ware’s remarkable progress.
Before the meal ended, Kaplowitz made a proposal: If this relationship worked out, if they really did build a friendship, maybe they could write a book together. In college, Kaplowitz had thought about going into journalism; he was editor of the campus humor magazine, and he wrote an article about his time at Emery Elementary. (The headline was “How I Joined Teach for America — and Got Sued for $20 Million.”)
But as he walked back to the office from lunch, Kaplowitz told himself he had blundered, moved too quickly. “I just freaked him out,” he thought.
He hadn’t. Ware was indeed startled by the idea of a book, and puzzled that Kaplowitz would want to go public with their relationship before it had even really formed. But Ware liked the notion of letting the world know that he was moving on up, escaping a life of struggle and dysfunction.
“I know it sounds grandiose,” Kaplowitz says, “but the idea that two people who had no reason to even speak to each other after a traumatic event could sit down and have a conversation — people might see some resonance in their own lives. I think of the Palestinians and the Israelis and 2,000 years of mutual hatred.”
That’s how Josh is, says his wife, Andrea. He puts the pain behind him and pushes forward. Through most of their 12 years of marriage, that moment with Raynard had rarely been far from consciousness.
When they started dating, Andrea recalls, she had the awkward duty of telling her parents, “I’m dating somebody, and he’s been accused of hurting a child — betcha can’t wait to meet him!”
She laughs now, but back then, some of their friends didn’t believe Kaplowitz and withdrew from his life. For a time, Teach for America used Kaplowitz’s story in their training program as an example of how a teacher can go wrong. A few years ago, after Kaplowitz finished law school at the University of Virginia, Andrea did part-time work watching other people’s children, and she and her husband decided that they needed to disclose The Incident to potential clients, so there would be no surprises if the parents Googled them.
With dancing black eyes, rosy cheeks and a lean innocence, Kaplowitz looks unscathed by the trauma of a decade ago, but his friends say it hit him hard. “It took him four or five years to get out of that funk,” says Wren Miller, Kaplowitz’s Teach for America buddy, now a funeral director in Pennsylvania. “We all had accusations from kids, and the principal would tell us it was something kids do to get attention. Josh’s case just went further than most others.”
Connecting with Ware “was like a weight lifted from Josh this past year or so,” Miller says. “There’s a sense that things are now what he’d wished they could be all along, that he could finally have that close relationship with students.”
But as therapeutic as the connection with Ware has been, Miller wonders whether it can truly flourish if the two men hold onto different stories about that June day.
“I would think, to move on together,” Miller says, “they’d have to come to some common understanding of what happened.”
If the first meeting between Ware and Kaplowitz three summers ago was awkward, bringing Sharlene Mullings into the circle promised to be much dicier. Kaplowitz had insisted that he could go no further with Ware unless he met with his mother. Kaplowitz needed to see if she still considered him the enemy.
He wanted to know if she still believed he had assaulted her son. “The hardest thing in all of this is for her to acknowledge that she brought this lawsuit based on something that didn’t happen,” he says.
What Sharlene Mullings, a Christian with a degree in theology, did instead was to forgive Kaplowitz — a religious act born of belief in redemption. What Kaplowitz, a secular Jew with reverence for the certainties of the law, wanted was a statement annulling the past.
Kaplowitz bristled when Mullings said she forgave him, but he decided to leave it at that because she didn’t seem to have any lingering resentment. He had once accused Mullings of “fraudulently” winning the settlement money; now he says “there was less conniving than I assumed at the time. Now I look back and she’s got three kids, in public housing — I certainly think she took advantage of the situation for financial gain, but I now think she genuinely thought something had happened. And the fact that Raynard is the person he is today is largely because of her.”
Mullings has decided that whatever happened that day with Raynard and his teacher, Kaplowitz “was trying his best, and the kids in that school were off the chain. The school system failed the teacher as well as the child.”
She makes no excuses for her aggressive defense of her child. She says she was aggressively protective of him because she was raped by a school janitor when she was in kindergarten. “So at Raynard’s school, they always knew who Ms. Ware was,” she says. “I was up in their face. I didn’t trust nobody.”
But she now credits Kaplowitz and The Incident for getting Raynard moved into a private school where his behavior issues were addressed. (“I used to have to punch him in his chest when he was little because he was off the chain,” she says.)
Mullings had started pressing for help for her son a year before The Incident, when she applied to Social Security for disability payments because, she said, Raynard suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder. Her claim was denied, and she fought the ruling in the courts for four years, ultimately losing.
A federal judge ruled that although Raynard had been suspended from school six times, he “showed no signs of hyperactivity” when he was tested and worked well with adults and peers.
Mullings’s pride in her son’s transformation takes physical form in a room in her house that is a veritable shrine to his achievements — shelves full of trophies and certificates. Yet she still wonders why her son “feels the need to open up something I don’t want to revisit. It was in the past — leave it there.”
But she has come to believe that the bond between her son and his former teacher is true: “Two people coming back together after so many years, with no hostility? It’s deep. Yeah, it’s deep.”
As a ninth-grader, Raynard wrote in a school essay that “without my Mom, I think I’ll be in the streets. She disciplines me and tells me what’s right and what’s wrong.”
When he turned 18 and got the settlement money, Ware gave $10,000 of it to his mother.
Kaplowitz and Ware spoke or traded messages on 11 days in October. Sometimes it’s just a few words, and sometimes it’s a long conversation. They talk about what it’s like to be a lawyer. They talk about politics and sports.
So what is this — a friendship? A budding business partnership? A mentorship?
“I’m really reluctant to put a label on it,” says Andrea Kaplowitz. “The two of them share something no one else does. Who else could they talk to about this?”
She hasn’t met Ware, but she’d like to. Everyone realizes that the fact that Kaplowitz has not introduced his own family to his new friend means something.
“I don’t know that we’re there yet,” Andrea says. “E-mail and text is a way to broach all these issues; it lets you choose your words carefully. I think they’re past that now — they have open, casual conversations. But it’s a process.”
Kaplowitz isn’t sure what to call his new relationship either. He thinks it may well be a real friendship.
“Every friendship is different,” Kaplowitz says. “This is obviously different from my friends down the street who are complete peers. I certainly hope it’s helpful to Raynard; I know I’ve learned a lot from him. I am very proud of who he’s become. I don’t know if he sees what he’s doing, but it’s very smart: He’s trying to reverse the inequality he was born into by forming networks that he wasn’t born with.”
For Kaplowitz, Ware represents “a second chance, another bite at the apple of making a difference. I have no doubt some people will take the story the wrong way — that I’m only trying to redeem myself, or he’s just using me for my networks. That’s really not the motivation, and even if it is part of the motivation, so what? I have a new friend and some form of closure.”
Ware sees his relationship with Kaplowitz as “an exchange of cultures. I know there’s a stereotype that Caucasian people only have one black friend, but this is more than that.”
He would like to meet Andrea and their children, though. “I’d like to see it move toward more of a friendship.”
Whatever you call it, the relationship is valuable, Ware says: “He gets validation from me, knowing he wasn’t as bad a teacher as he thought he was, that he made an impact in my life, that now we’re both doing well. And I learn a lot from Josh. I pick up little things, certain lingo, being in corporate America like Josh is. I watch people really closely. I grew up very quiet, and people think I’m not listening, but I take it all in.”
Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@
washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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