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December 14, 2016
An innocent question posed by a young girl led Naivon Lake Jr. to chart out a new course in his life.
He was at an internship last December, tutoring at an elementary school, when a student addressed Mr. Lake’s supervisor.
“Naivon is smart, right?” the girl had asked. Mr. Lake’s supervisor chuckled and replied that he would not be there otherwise.
“If Naivon is smart, why isn’t he in college?” the girl said.
Mr. Lake overheard the conversation, words that rattled him and knocked him into a moment of introspection and unexpected clarity.
“I’m not a hypocrite,” Mr. Lake, 20, said. “If I’m telling her, ‘You have to go to school and do this,’ I can’t not go to school.”
He had graduated from the Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development in Brooklyn, but came out with no plans to attend college. He had wandered through school, never fully recovering from the death of his beloved aunt during his sophomore year, but paid just enough attention at school to receive a diploma.
“I was always at school, I just wasn’t at class,” Mr. Lake said. Instead, he preferred to hang out with his friends on the courtyard to play soccer.
His mother scolded him for his truancy, but it was not enough to improve his attendance. It took a school official to explain to him that the peers he had been skipping class with were going to graduate, but he was not.
“If I don’t graduate, I don’t go to college,” Mr. Lake said. “If I don’t go to college, I won’t get a good job.”
He raced to finish assignments for the class credit needed to walk across the stage at graduation. School, after all, was not so difficult, Mr. Lake said. He always had a knack for memorizing information, and was quick to understand math formulas and science theories. He graduated on time, but without a next step in mind. College was a possibility, but not something he had done the work to actually pursue.
“I was just lost,” Mr. Lake said. “I figured, I don’t like being idle too long, so I had to get a job.”
For the next year, he worked 70 to 80 hours a week at a Duane Reade, hating every shift he clocked in for. In fall 2015, at his mother’s urging, he begrudgingly entered Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow’s Young Adult Internship Program. Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow serves people like Mr. Lake who are considered at-risk, out-of-school and unemployed youths. It is a beneficiary agency of the Community Service Society, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
With its help, Mr. Lake landed a paid internship as a tutor at El Puente Taylor Wythe, which operates an after-school center and summer camp program. It was rewarding in an unexpected way, he said.
“Just being there nurtured me as a whole individual,” he said. “My patience is way higher than it was before. Tolerance for things is a lot more sturdy.”
It was there that he met that inquisitive girl who inspired him to go to college. Earlier this year, he returned to Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow and met with a college counselor. He applied and was accepted into LaGuardia Community College. The Community Service Society used $65 in Neediest funds to pay for Mr. Lake’s college application fee.
Mr. Lake is enrolled as a full-time student, pursuing a major in commercial photography. He has ambitions of starting an event photography business, a passion that developed in high school. He also hopes to eventually pursue a degree in information technology and web design.
Yet, Mr. Lake still finds himself fighting boredom with school and struggling to get excited for class, except for his photography assignments. To resist his old habits, he tries to remind himself of the patience and focus he sharpened as a tutor.
“I feel like I really matured as a person, after seeing what I’ve gone through and reflecting on it,” Mr. Lake said. “I can’t afford to slack off.”
He currently works part time as a tutor at El Puente Beacon Leadership Center, where he has motivated many students to complete homework they wanted to put off; some later earned perfect scores on those assignments and on tests. They all credit Mr. Lake’s guiding hand with their success.
“I really have an impact on someone’s life,” Mr. Lake said. “It sticks with you. It’s powerful. It’s a powerful thing.”