Learning from a Miseducation

What do we know – truly know – of our students? What strengths, talents and abilities may be within them, waiting to be tapped and for them to flourish? It’s a question that begs to be asked when reading Brandon P. Fleming’s fascinating memoir, Miseducated. He is a very talented man whose life easily could have ended early and tragically. Fleming’s story is one of abuse, trauma, yet more trauma, great will, and eventual success. He was rarely recognized along the way as a person of worth. Poverty, racism, and other factors worked against him. His journey – to self-actualization, to education, to making a difference – is amazing. While Fleming is a young man still, only just in his 30s, he shares much in this revealing work.

The book opens with Fleming recovering from a suicide attempt. Candor marks the narrative; there is little that Fleming avoids sharing. As he retraces the missteps that led him to the hospital bed, he thinks of his work, his friends, and his family. Fleming’s stepfather, the devil incarnate, looms large. In blunt terms, he was an evil man. Fleming’s mother was active in military service and loved him dearly. His biological father was, for a variety of reasons, a less than consistent presence in his life. Fleming’s stepfather, on the other hand, was a persistent threat, a sadistic preacher given to beating his family and trying to abuse girls. Early life for Fleming was horrific, even with his mother’s love. His teen years were slightly better, thanks to changes in family structure and Fleming’s athletic talent. Nonetheless, he was sexually abused, had little opportunity to learn about healthy relationships, and wrestled with pressure to become a tough, a “gangsta,” a frightening young Black male. He sold drugs. Fleming’s justifiable rage was never far from the surface, either. It is easy to see how the pressures, the environment and absence of safe and healthy spaces lead this young man to violence and self-harm. Fleming is unique and not unique. We are fortunate that he survived and pushed through. There are many lessons in his story.

Like many other teen age males, sports opened doors and opportunities for Fleming. Basketball gave him self-worth and direction. Coaching staff paid attention, as did other players and adults. Fleming’s ambition drove him to play above his height and natural ability, leading to a scholarship opportunity at Liberty University. And yes, Fleming notes that it was a most unusual choice of a college for a Black young man with a rough childhood.

Fleming did not flourish at Liberty, but did well and his life took a new and promising direction. Most importantly, he was identified as a man with vision, ambition and ability by some at and with the university. Fleming’s worthy traits, deserving of celebration and support, needed oxygen and care. Liberty provided an environment where that was possible.

Miseducated is not a book about a sudden conversation, a finding of faith and a magical transformation. Fleming did not have an epiphany. There was no one person who reshaped his thinking and values. Instead, as Fleming recounts, it was a decision here, a speaker there, some help and some guidance, and persistent work, especially as he became more of a scholar. These are the ingredients that redirected him. Fleming found goals: he decided upon teaching, upon preaching, and on debate. He began to study African-American history, to learn of the many brilliant thinkers and leaders over the years, and to appreciate what had transpired and what was possible. Seeking out others who knew and appreciated this, Fleming found more and more intellectual and moral colleagues. These were his teachers.

Debate caught Fleming’s eye early in his college career. He stuck with it as he grew, as a scholar and intellectual, finding a new sense of identity. Joining a Black church and being mentored helped, as did opportunities to teach and coach. Unable to pass a mandatory standardized exam, Fleming’s aim to be a teacher stalled. Frustrated, he found a viable and more rewarding path through debate. In this realm and as a coach, Fleming found great success. Today he is the assistant coach of debate at Harvard, as well as the founder of the Harvard University Diversity Project. He has the tools and focus to fight racism, to build opportunity, and to reshape lives. Brandon P. Fleming is a role model.

Fleming’s prose is neither speculative nor reflective. He writes as one might debate, with clear direction while working to make a point. This renders the author all the more inspirational, but also distances him from the reader. Long on what he did and what was done to him, the book is relatively thin when it comes to exploring the personal motivation that has propelled him. Miseducated is perhaps best read as a epistolary tale, a series of sketches that come together as a message about perseverance. It will be interesting to learn how Fleming’s educational journey will continue to shape his scholarship and writing. He is an impressive person with much to give.

David Potash

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