A Conversation with a Young Lady

Last night, prior to a board meeting, the trustees of Harlem Academy met with the school’s soon-to-be-graduating eighth grade class. The marvelous young lady with whom I spoke at some length will be heading off to a school in Massachusetts next year; she hopes to become a physician some day.

She asked me to explain why I work with this school, and why on a voluntary basis. Her attitude was one of genuine, polite curiosity.

I told her that the idea that everybody should have a chance to accomplish important things is one of the noblest characteristics of our country – it’s one of the values that bring us together. We are a nation of strivers, and fervent believers in merit.

Harlem Academy provides bright young people from underprivileged, inner-city backgrounds with a truly first class education in a neighborhood in which the public schools are manifestly failing to do so. The school helps its students when it matters most: from the very beginning. If kids spend their elementary and middle school years in a school at which most students are reading at well below grade level, their odds of excelling relative to national or international norms are close to nil; on the other hand, if they get off on the right foot academically, they will have real chances to thrive.

Students from Harlem Academy are thriving, and by doing so they are showing that with hard work and the proper nurturing, intellectual talent can emerge from any group, anywhere. HA students are consistently testing competitively with children from the nation’s highest socio-economic brackets, and going on to successful academic careers at many of the nation’s most famous secondary schools and colleges. I have no doubt that some Harlem Academy students will eventually emerge as leaders in their fields; meanwhile other schools are already learning from the distinctive path that Harlem Academy is cutting.

I think the young lady with whom I was speaking liked the part about opportunity being one of our nation’s highest shared values, but I didn’t need to tell her that Harlem Academy is a great place; she loves it.


As to why I do volunteer work at all, I told her that philanthropy, because it’s voluntary, is the clearest affirmation of what each of us really values. And that goes double when we give time and/or money to an organization from which neither we nor our families have any expectation of ever receiving any tangible benefit.

Of necessity, each of us spends most of our time doing things for ourselves and our families, maybe occasionally extending ourselves for our friends or colleagues. We all have needs, and meeting them comes first, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Philanthropy and voluntarism enable us to become involved with others outside our small personal circles – people from totally different walks of life – in a mutually beneficial way. The one who is helped, is helped; the one who helps is helped also. It is a gift to the giver to know that what he or she has done has helped to change somebody else’s life for the better – few of us really get the chance to experience the joy that doing so brings. Working for Harlem Academy has given me that thrill.

The young would-be doctor considered my rather lengthy responses, and approved.


By working to help Harlem Academy I’ve been affirming with my own time and money that this nation’s noblest values are also my own, helping to change a broken education system, helping to give some very real, very wonderful children (with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths) a chance to thrive and having a lot of fun in the process.

And how does all this make me feel?

Very, very lucky.


M.H. Johnston


P.S. Next Thursday, Harlem Academy will hold its Spring Benefit, the proceeds of which generally cover about 1/4 of the school’s annual budget. This year, I will be the honoree.  For information about the benefit, see here: https://www.harlemacademy.org/support/spring-benefit.



2 comments to A Conversation with a Young Lady

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    “Harlem Academy provides bright young people from underprivileged, inner-city backgrounds with a truly first class education in a neighborhood in which the public schools are manifestly failing to do so.:
    Mark, you are an inspiration!

    Did you happen to see William McGurn’s fine article on “Black Men Speaking Latin” in Tuesday’s WSJ?

    If not, a must read!

    • M Johnston  says:

      Thank you, Dennis. It has been one of my life’s most rewarding experiences. And yes, I had seen that article. Fabulous stuff.

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