Brandon P. Fleming is founder of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, nationally recognized for its success in introducing minority students to the Ivy League institution’s debate team. He should not be where he is today.
In his recently published memoir Miseducated, Fleming shares all the reasons for his unlikely success, beginning with an abusive upbringing laid out in all its painful detail. But Fleming overcame the odds by surviving the awful childhood, drugs and stupid mistakes that could have landed him behind bars, the missed dream of an athletic scholarship, and an intimate dance with death following a suicide attempt.
“I want him out of this school.” Fleming heard the words of the middle principal fed up with the 13-year-old menace. He walked a thin line between academic eligibility to play basketball and his side hustle of selling drugs.
For all the teachers and adults who failed him, there were a handful of others who stepped up to the challenge of a rowdy Black child and saw the potential overlooked by everyone else, most notably Fleming himself.
An injury ended his career as a Division 1 college athlete and forced him to leave Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. A gift from his mother, a veteran with newly acquired GI Bill benefits, put Fleming back into the classroom where he discovered the concept of renaissance. He studied every renaissance he could find and reflected on what the great philosophers had to offer a poor Black student who admitted to his teacher he had never read a book.
And he developed a love of debate.
Along the way, he learned about education and the school system that had failed him and many of his peers. When the door to the world opened, things began to make sense:
“I realized that my approach to debate was wrong. My approach to education in general was wrong. I had been debating with facts and information that I could regurgitate but did not understand. Like a child trying to walk before he crawls, I was trying to argue before I learned how to question….I realized that traditional education focuses mainly on the status quo, on the surface of the soil-which allows the seeds of injustice to lie quiescent, until they sprout into weeds of social and political inequality. The aphorism attributed to Socrates started to make sense: weak minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; but strong minds discuss ideas.”
Armed with new mental strength, Fleming gathered students around Lynchburg who needed a mentor, someone to care about them, and peel back the layers of their potential. The climb was sometimes steep and difficult, but Fleming’s scholars absorbed the lessons of the Harlem Renaissance with the same enthusiasm that had altered the course of his life.
In the current debate over what students should learn about the history of race in our country, the narratives of Black students like Fleming provide the best lessons. Miseducated takes us to dark places no child should endure on the way to a future few can imagine. His memoir is an inspiration for parents, educators and students who think they know how much a child can achieve.
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