Soul Catcher

Stuart Albright’s journey of self-discovery has launched many, many others in his classroom and on the playing field.

“You see that kid over there?” Stuart Albright ’01 jerks a thumb over his right shoulder at the end of Durham’s Jordan High School football practice in July. The boy is no bigger than a minute, and his dark blue shirt, drenched with sweat, droops from his body like a hound dog’s jowls. He could pass for a fifth-grader, maybe a seventh-grader, with shoulder pads. He is grinning as he speaks with his foster parent.

“This kid just moved here from Georgia three days ago,” says Albright, the assistant coach, whose own economical physique and floppy sunhat imply that he got lost on the way to a cruise ship’s tennis courts. “Kid comes in first day, sits in the locker room by himself, doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t talk to anyone. The next day, a couple of other kids are sitting with him. By today, he’s just one of the guys. When he starts school in August, he’ll know 120 guys. That’s pretty cool.”

“See this other kid?” he asks, pointing to an even smaller player on the bench press in Jordan’s weight room. He’s one of three Vietnamese cousins on the team this year. None of them speaks English, but they joined the team to join a community. And then there’s the player who is deaf, who has a sign-language translator on the field with him.

“Isn’t that incredible?” Albright asks, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. Over there is Josh Gornto. Gornto is a second lieutenant in the Marines and a former player for Jordan and Bucknell who has stopped through on his way to flight school in Pensacola, sporting a crew cut, aviators and a mischievous Top Gun smile.

He crosses his arms and chuckles as he tells the story of the time Albright got so excited about a perfectly executed flea-flicker during a junior varsity game that he ran onto the field before the ensuing touchdown was scored — and ran smack into an oncoming referee, flipping head over heels and losing his shoes in the process.

“He’s not the biggest dude,” Gornto says, “but he has so much passion. He’s been a very influential person in my life. If I’m in Durham, I want to be here.”

Gornto was one of the 32 students who enrolled in Albright’s first creative writing class at Jordan in 2006. While the students learned to write uncensored, deeply personal short stories, dialogues and poems — works that Albright collected in an anthology at the end of the year and self-published — what they came away with was more profound than 300 pages set in professional typeface. Smart kids learned from average kids, white kids learned from black kids, Asian kids learned from Hispanic kids, and so many stereotypes rang out and crashed down.

A girl revealed her suicidal despair, the way she flirted with death through self- mutilation and hid it under long sleeves; another shared her struggles with anorexia and bulimia. A student with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair was surprised to learn that the two popular athletes in the class — Gornto and 350-pound offensive lineman Siddiq Haynes — were friendly, caring guys who made her feel like she mattered, like she wasn’t an outcast.

Conversely, Haynes, a deeply devoted Muslim, learned in that class that he was vulnerable to being labeled a dumb jock simply because he was an athlete. He went on to major in English at the University of Delaware, where he was named captain of the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team for his commitment to community service, and picked up a serious poetry habit.

That first group of creative writing students hardly knew one another in August.

By the end of the semester, they considered themselves close friends. The following year, as word traveled through Jordan’s hallways, 120 students enrolled in the course, then 150 the next year, then 200, then 250, far more than Room 413’s 32 desks could possibly handle in one class period.

Albright figures he knows every kid in Jordan’s annual 400-person senior class.

To feel like you belong

With numbers like those, you don’t have to look far to understand why he was named Durham Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2006, why he received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award in 2007 — a national honor popularly dubbed the Oscar of education. You don’t have to look because the stories and the reasons find you.

At a fitness center across town, on another July day, Tra Farrington sits on a 3- foot-high stack of exercise mats in a Spartan workout room — the reigning champion of North Carolina’s Strongman competition, a guy who can lift a 400-pound stone and carry it more than a dozen feet — and talks about poetry. Specifically, the 21-year-old husband and father of a toddler discusses the chapbook he published while taking Albright’s creative writing class at Jordan, when Albright introduced him to the thrilling rhythms of slam poetry — poetry that’s created to be spoken and performed, not just read from a page, and is dependent on rhythms and storytelling.

He talks about how he — a 230-pound black man who will leave the next day to compete in London for the U.S. Olympic powerlifting team — looks in the mirror and sees the image of his scrawny, white former teacher and coach staring back at him.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Farrington was a timid, 5-foot-8, 150-pound freshman, home-schooled through fifth grade by his mother, when he met Albright. Even today he speaks in the imagery and metaphor of a man who spends a good deal of time with his thoughts, not his biceps. He was so intimidated as a 15-year-old athlete at football practice that he found himself gravitating toward the meek-looking, pasty assistant coach. He looked to Farrington like a guy who knew what it meant to feel like you don’t belong.

But at a preseason team scrimmage, Albright declared Farrington a linebacker and matched him up against “a 6-4, 350-pound guy with long dreadlocks who looked like something off of TV, like the Predator, like a guy who lives out in the country and lifts cars in his spare time.” The coach said, “Be physical.”

“The other coaches thought he was nuts to send me out there like that,” Farrington says. “But Albright just patted me on the butt and said, ‘Don’t let me down.’ And sure enough, I got the guy under the shoulder pads and drove him to the ground. I went nuts, I was so happy.”

Between now and the next Olympics in 2016, Farrington plans to pen another book, this one about his experiences with an extraordinary teacher.

“He’s like Jesus,” says Farrington, who will return to N.C. Central in January to complete his degree in — what else? — English education. “It’s hard not to be drawn to him. There’s so much power in there, and it intrigued me. It still intrigues me to this day.”

The other side of the tracks

You see that kid over there? The one playing with his brother on the old cotton farm where they live? You can’t tell yet what this kid has inside him.

He is small for his age, just a wisp of a child, and he is timid. He is cautious in that way first-borns often are, and sometimes anxious, too. He feels everything, absorbs all. Those 30 children packed into a single Gastonia public elementary school classroom, all those strong personalities demanding attention — well, Nancy Albright, a schoolteacher herself, took one look at that scene and enrolled her son in a private school instead. She felt his light would be swallowed up whole if she didn’t. Even then, he starts school with an unyielding grip on his mother’s leg and a nervous stutter that will hang around for a couple of months.

This skittish child, whose inclination is to blend into the wallpaper, one day will become one of the most remarkable public school teachers not just in his state, but in the country; a man who will connect with students on levels so bottomless and with such skill that the most intimidating children of all — teenagers — will crowd into a room in which there are more heartbeats than chairs and sit upon a stack of books just to hear him talk.

But this is where it starts.

He grows up climbing into the loft of the large horse barn behind the Victorian farmhouse with his younger brother, Robert, surrounded by nine acres of idyllic country soil, and jumping into the golden hay. He is 35 minutes from Charlotte and miles from want and trouble.

His dad, Alan Albright ’70, could have been a Big Deal in politics. People like Bill Friday ’48 (LLB) said so. He was a Morehead Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, the student body president at UNC. Deeply intellectual, he was also proudly small-town. When his college sweetheart, Salem graduate Nancy Wetzell, insisted on that kind of upbringing for their future children, her husband never balked. He pried back conventional ambition and found a richly woven existence with community purpose behind it. He eschewed Raleigh, maybe even Washington, for the soundness of being in Gastonia.

In the middle of his workday, in the parking lot of his small law practice, Alan would come out in his suit and tie and throw the football around with Stuart. He coached his children in basketball, or soccer or baseball.

His mother, she could light up a room with her stories; but she could meet someone just as easily at their level of sorrow. Stuart was 8 or 9 years old, and she was torn up over a woman that she knew, a woman about to lose her children. Nancy could do little for her; the mother had made mistakes. But Nancy couldn’t fathom how hard it would be to not see your kids every day, and she was struck with a desire to help and to understand what that felt like. So she went to the courthouse and sat next to her through the custody hearing that would decimate motherhood as the woman knew it.

And young Stuart noticed.

“Mom,” said the grade-schooler as the difficulty unfolded, “one thing I like about you is that you really care about people.”

That took her breath away, the realization that her son lived some part of his life outside the dream world of romps in abandoned seed barns. You don’t think about your kids watching the way you live your days, Nancy says, but Stuart had begun to pick up on everything. He was wired for a fine level of perception, and it became ever more precise as he grew. The actions and experiences of others entered a complex stew of a brain that read Gone With the Wind in fifth grade and loved it, a mind that in junior high proclaimed The Complete Works of Shakespeare to be the best birthday present he’d received.

On the eve of ninth grade, when Stuart decided to leave tiny Gaston Day School (population 500) to attend the imposing, racially diverse public high school Ashbrook (population 1,300) and play wide receiver, he worried a little about the other side of those tracks. He and his brother, Robert, had a hazy, childlike knowledge of black Gastonia that they gained when their mother gave rides home to their African-American nanny.

So while his slight build worried his mother, and his friends at Gaston Day predicted he and his shyness wouldn’t last one week at his new school, Stuart’s biggest concern was that he had never been to school with a black kid.

“I was scared to death that they wouldn’t like me just because I was white,” he says, “that they would make fun of me, that I didn’t talk like them and so that would cause me some problems.”

But Stuart had a car, and his teammates did not, and every day after practice he would drive them across the train tracks to their old mill homes 20 minutes out of his way, with plenty of time to talk. In the distance between those houses, Stuart Albright discovered a weird glitch in his introverted nature. He discovered he was more himself when he put his mind and body in places that he did not, on paper, belong. Within those conversations he discovered that those train tracks were just a folly of distance, parallel rails of misconception.

“They had the same issues I had. They wanted to find a pretty girl to date — all the things that I was concerned about. But their financial situation was just very different from mine. If I hadn’t come to Ashbrook, played football, I would never ever have had a reason to know these kids at all. They wound up becoming some of my best friends.”

Identities, lost and found

“Stuart Albright is like a musician,” says Chaniqua Nelson, who graduated from Jordan in 2007. “Musicians know what the audience wants, and they know what the audience needs to have a great experience, and the audience just falls in love with the experience as a result. It was that way with Mr. Albright. In a non-cheesy way, his class really changed my life.”

At Jordan, Nelson felt ambivalence about college; her family had gotten there through the military, and it wasn’t a path that resonated strongly with her. But she also felt a passionate interest in the history of people of African descent, an interest that spanned the emotions of both pride and frustration and one that she had trouble finding room to voice. Then she had Albright for English her junior year, and he saw that passion in her. He gave her books to read that helped her make sense of the emotions she felt over the plight of African people in history.

The authors, almost exclusively, had studied at Howard University, the historically black school in Washington, D.C. Nelson began to see herself there one day, too — especially after a unique classroom assignment that she says she’ll never forget.

During the class’s study of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Albright divided the students into courtroom roles and put Mark Twain’s frequent use of the N- word on trial. Nelson had the title of prosecutor, in a class that, it turned out, included the grandson of a former Ku Klux Klan member.

Some interesting discussions ensued.

“It speaks to the facilitator of the classroom that that student and I could even have these very specific discussions about race,” says Nelson, who graduated magna cum laude from Howard in 2011 and now is earning a master’s degree in political science. “The student and I came to a better understanding of each other and of race relations. Everyone in the class did. People were able to be open and to really share opinions. It was just a really cool dynamic, and I haven’t really seen that in any classroom since. We all became one. We learned that just because you’re diverse as people, doesn’t mean you’re diverse in thought.”

Albright says what he loves about teaching high school students is that, when they see evidence that contradicts their thoughts, they’re open to switching their opinions. In his writing classes in particular, he’s felt the whole dynamic of a group change when a student makes himself vulnerable by reading aloud a personal story — a Mexican student, for example, who carried two jugs of water across the desert with his mother, leaving his father behind forever to start over in Durham. A story like that makes a 17-year-old think twice about blanket statements on illegal immigration. A level of openness and respect enters the room that was not there before.

Even for the teacher.

Last year, Albright taught a boy who had moved from inner-city Richmond, a tough kid with dyslexia and an infamously poor attitude that Albright knew from hallway encounters at Jordan. “He wasn’t a kid I ever wanted to have in my class, because he was a pain in the ass,” he says.

But he did take Albright’s class as a senior, and though he resisted all year, on the last day of class, the tough kid finally shared an original poem: It was about his grandmother, Virginia, who had died, and about moving from Richmond. He called it “Leaving Virginia.”

“I don’t get emotional often,” Albright says, “but I lost it. And that never would have happened if that kid hadn’t opened himself up.”

Although those moments don’t happen every day, “it’s classes like that,” he says, “that make you want to keep teaching.”

“He looks beyond race, he looks beyond socioeconomic class, beyond all of that, just to see the person,” says Nelson, who wants to become a U.S. ambassador. “There are students who are just waiting for a teacher like that to come along and unlock their passion, unlock their dreams and to truly believe in them.”

George Yamazawa was a kid like that. Coming to school high every day, with bloodshot eyes and a stash of marijuana, Yamazawa used Jordan as a commerce cen- ter for his drug dealing and little else. He also was a brilliant poet, and Albright knew it — as did everyone who had ever heard him at the mic, deploying his powerful narratives at a slam poetry night. In Albright’s class, G, as he was known, found a teacher he could respect. Creative writing was the one course that he took seriously.

“He never censored what we wrote about, so I would write about smoking weed,” he says. “He had a way of bringing everyone together — drama club kids, football kids — and respecting them equally, that other teachers just couldn’t do. He knew everything that was going on in my life, so I trusted him from the get-go.”

All Jordan’s teachers knew G’s story. He earned more than 30 days of suspensions as a sophomore for drugs, alcohol, cursing at teachers. He told Albright one day in detention that he couldn’t stop dealing drugs, because that’s what he was known for. He would lose his identity.

“Make poetry your new identity,” Albright told him.

Yamazawa was expelled from Jordan and exiled to Lakeview School for his junior year, the place Durham Public Schools sends its chronic offenders. There, as he watched kids with no dreams and no future mill around, he had plenty of time to think about what Albright had said, plenty of time to realize he wanted to get serious about that new identity.

Yamazawa stopped dealing drugs that summer. He revisited his Buddhist practice. He began attending major slam poetry competitions and making a name for himself onstage. And he asked Albright to sponsor a slam poetry club when he returned to Jordan for his senior year. That club became a team that competed in an annual citywide high school competition, also founded by Yamazawa in 2009, which Jordan has never lost.

And, with Albright’s help, he published his own book of poetry, Ever Victorious. Now an internationally known slam poet who has performed at the Sundance Film Festival, in 2010 Yamazawa became the youngest competitor in the history of the Individual World Poetry Slam to make the finals.

“I had a deep-rooted anger and hatred toward anyone with authority over kids, anyone with the power to fail you,” says Yamazawa, who also coordinates and coaches high school slam poetry teams in Washington, D.C. “But Albright revitalized my faith in school and in what teachers can do. He was a huge if not the main source of my well-being in high school. Just to know that one of your teachers believes in you is extremely powerful. And it just takes one teacher to change a student for the course of his life.”

How can I leave my students?

So you start to see it, what the shy kid is made of. Albright graduates from Ashbrook High and heads off to Carolina’s creative writing program. He attends a weeklong mission trip to Camden, N.J., with his church when he is a sophomore, and the minister notices it first: A fire in him to make a difference, to do something worthwhile.

He agrees to return to Camden and work as a counselor at a community center the following summer, to take on the troubles of disadvantaged youth in one of the country’s most violent and forgotten cities, a place on everybody’s “worst” list. He is there alone, without family or friends. The work is difficult, disheartening, soul-challenging and lonely. He encounters fathers who are drug addicts, mothers who peel off their boots and strike their children across the face, kids who yearn for better lives — and yet, somehow, he finds a rapport with the teens whose parents never lent them a leg to cling to on the first day of kindergarten. Teens who never were given the space to master their insecurities.

He learns the lesson again, that when he puts himself in unfamiliar places, extraordinary moments happen. Growth happens.

He returns settled on a future: Urban education.

At Harvard, while earning his master’s in education, Albright teaches at Boston English, the city’s lowest-performing school. He walks into the teacher’s lounge one day and a veteran instructor tells him, “Get out now, while you still can.”

He does get out, out of that poisonous teacher’s lounge, and vows to tell every student teacher he meets during his career that the tough days get better. (And that, p.s., they should stay out of the teacher’s lounge wherever they work.)

He begins at Jordan in 2002. Over the next 10 years, he will turn his journal from Camden into a critically praised, self-published memoir, Blessed Returns, and he’ll turn that publishing company he founded, McKinnon Press, into a font of his students’ work, a press that is responsible for 30 class anthologies and 20 student novels to date. (Not to mention two more works by Albright himself: Sidelines, about North Carolina high school football; and most recently, Bull City, a novel about post- 9/11 race relations.)

He will think about giving up teaching — once, after two years on the job. But then a kid will walk in the door who used to lob “f___ you”s at him every other day, and that kid will be there to thank him for caring about him. And that will be the last time Stuart Alan Albright thinks about quitting.

Instead, he will become the high school football coach who takes off on an endless post route, down an interminable field, his stride growing stronger with each yard, with each emotion his students throw his way. He will catch those emotions with unexpected sturdiness in his spindly arms. He will collect his students’ anger, slow- simmering; their insecurities, nameless but stifling; their joy; their hopes; their dreams; souls lost and souls found; and hand it all back to them in realized form, a messy and powerful ball of self-awareness and empowerment that will sustain them into young adulthood.

“I think he was born to be a teacher,” Nelson says. “And when someone is born to do something, it just changes the quality of work that is produced. I know he could take this gift and go to a prep school or a private school, and I know that he could make a lot more money off of this gift elsewhere. But he chooses to stay in Durham Public Schools.”

When Albright won the Milken Award in 2007, he grew tired of answering the question, “So what are you going to do now?” as if teaching were no longer good enough, now that he’d won an award for it. Even when he won the Durham Public Schools accolade, he says, he probably “killed himself” when he went to the state competition that followed. They told him during the interview process that, if he won, he would get to leave his job for a year and travel across the state talking about education. He was horrified.

“I don’t want to do that,” he told them. “How can I leave my students for that long?”

How could he? He says that more than half of the kids on the football team alone don’t have a father figure at home “80 to 90 percent of the time.” Albright and Jor- dan’s head coach, former Wake Forest and Hillside High player LaDwaun Harrison, often are left to escort players onto the field when they are honored on Senior Night — a ritual typically reserved for parents, and one of “the biggest moments some of these kids will ever have in their lives.” No one else is there to do it.

“The kids put on a brave face when that happens, but it bothers them,” says Albright, who adds that their mothers, as the sole breadwinners in the family, are often too busy working to come. “Players in my class often write about their deep-seated anger at their fathers for their lack of presence in their lives. When I’m down on my job, I always think of that. Somebody has to be there for them, because they need mentors.”

It is difficult, though. He’s a father of two young sons himself now, and his wife, Jenni Summerville Albright ’05 (MPH), also is a public employee, in the state public health department. With state budget struggles, both time and money are in short supply in the Albright household; Albright spent last summer taking on freelance edit- ing and tutoring jobs to keep up. But he says he’ll find a way, as long as he can, to keep striving to be like the many teachers and coaches he met while writing Sidelines.

“They had been at their schools and in their communities for 20, 30 years, and they weren’t interested in being the most brilliant people you’ve ever met,” Stuart says. “But they were hard-working, and they were there, and the kids trusted them because they knew that they were going to be there. And I hope that my students would see that with me, as a coach and as a teacher, that they can trust me because I’m not going any- where. I hope I can live up to that.”

All of which leads him here, to this evening, on this field with these kids at this school in Durham, in a floppy sunhat and a baggy shirt, with a purpose beyond hay lofts and train tracks, beyond race and class, beyond shyness and fear, in one of the toughest jobs a person can have — a job that Stuart Albright’s students will tell you he does a little better than just about everyone else.

Copyright 2013 UNC General Alumni Association

From the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review.