I've rocked with Dave Chappelle for a long time — way before “Chappelle's Show” blew up with its culture-shaping commentary on race, politics and culture.
That's partly because, like me, he's an alumni of Washington, D.C.'s public school system and always reps it hard.
When I worked at the Banana Republic in Georgetown the summer after my senior year, the actor and comedian came in unnoticed by apparently everyone but myself. Being a big fan of his performance in “The Nutty Professor,” I introduced myself, and that's when he shared that he briefly attended my high school — Eastern High School, “the Pride of Capitol Hill.”
So I was surprised, but mainly excited, when he interrupted his presentation at Sunday's Emmy Awards to rep the school system that helped shape his talent.
“Now I'm going to read this teleprompter. Please forgive me. Shout out to D.C. public schools. Here we go,” the alumnus of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts said.
It appeared to be done in jest and impromptu and perhaps not to have any significant meaning — especially by the time “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver mentioned the District again.
“Like Dave Chapelle, I would like to unexpectedly thank D.C. public schools because I think it would be great if it started trending tonight on Twitter for no reason whatsoever,” Oliver said. “So, if you're tweeting about the Emmys at home, please use the hashtag D.C. public schools.”
But for people like me who came up in the District during the 1990s, when the narrative about life in the city was terribly incomplete and lacking in nuance, it meant a bit more. It was hilarious and moving to see #DCPublicSchools trending, but it was even better seeing my old classmates' gleeful and somewhat emotional reaction on social media.
Like most urban school districts with large minority and low-income populations during the 1980s and 1990s, to say that D.C. public schools were challenged is an understatement. Chappelle talked about it a bit in a 2006 “Inside the Actor's Studio” interview.
“D.C. during the crack epidemic was probably one of the worst cities in America. It was definitely the murder capital. My freshman year of high school was about 560 kids my age murdered,” he said. “So these are the things that I'm seeing. And I didn't like that s---, I didn't like going to Eastern.”
If you've seen any of Hollywood's cliched movies about inner-city schools, you probably can picture them, but unless you've had a meaningful relationship with people within the system you probably don't know much else.
Chappelle didn't like Eastern — most students in that environment probably didn't, but that didn't keep the city's public schools from shaping him.
After his mother bought her joke-telling son a Time magazine with Bill Cosby on the cover, Chappelle transferred to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the same school that educated renowned opera singer Denyce Graves and actress Samira Wiley, who was up for an Emmy on Sunday for her role in “The Handmaid's Tale.”
Chappelle is nearly a decade older than me, so our high school experiences were a bit different. A combination of a tough and intentional principal, parents who truly wanted better for their kids, and community businesses, faith-based organizations and nonprofits fed up with the reputation that D.C. had developed allowed me to have a different experience at Eastern.
I have more examples than I can count, but one of the easiest and most fundamental was that The Washington Post started a mentorship and scholarship program at my high school for honor students. Even before I considered a career in journalism, my mentors — then White House reporter Terry Neal and former Post publisher Don Graham — were challenging me to think about the issues that the media covered daily and how I could one day play a role in shaping the world in which I now navigate.
Don't get me wrong. By no means had my school become something comparable to Sidwell Friends, the elite private school that has educated several kids of presidents, but an environment was created that allowed me to excel at a level that directly led me to where I am today, which is perhaps why so many parents and educators I speak with in D.C. and beyond are so discouraged and anxious about how little they hear about public education in the national media.
Education hasn't gotten a big share of the attention in an administration that gives us new headlines nearly weekly, but there are real implications for how the federal government invests, or doesn't, in public schools. According to federal data, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families — a statistic with real implications for families not only in America's cities, but in states like West Virginia and others President Trump won.
“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities . . . an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly pledged to shrink the federal role in education to give parents more opportunities to choose their children’s schools. So far that has meant proposing a budget plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services as part of the Trump administration's plan to cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives.
The administration's support for school choice is one that many voters on both sides of the aisle agree with, but many questions remain about the administration's commitment to — and focus on — public schools in D.C. and beyond. Many of the president's most die-hard supporters often remind us that his presidency is still young, which is true. After tying education to the most memorable line in his inauguration address, the president’s Twitter feed hasn’t evidenced much attention to the topic. Sunday’s social media boost put a welcome spotlight on those schools and families Trump talked about in the inauguration speech and campaigned on helping — like the next Dave Chappelle, or reporter who writes about him.