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BowdoinCoverSpring14-Marshall-Hopkins-webA Q&A with social activist and pioneering education reformer Geoffrey Canada ’74
by Cynthia McFadden ’79

An abridged version of this interview appeared in the print edition of Bowdoin Magazine, Spring 2014. This is McFadden’s full interview with Canada. 

As he makes his way across the packed dining room of Manhattan’s power lunch spot, Michael’s, Geoffrey Canada, all six feet of him, is easily spotted by a slew of financial and media types. Many of whom quickly make their way over to our table to pay their respects. Canada is used to the attention. The undisputed national role model for education reform, for more than thirty years, he has recently announced that he is poised to step down from his perch as head of the organization he made famous, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

The New York Times Magazine wrote of the HCZ, “it combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood. . . . the objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through.” It has worked. HCZ currently serves 12,300 children; 95 percent of their high school seniors go to college.

“Founders stay too long,” the sixty-two-year-old Canada tells me. “I want to leave when the organization is thriving, not wait until my successor has to catch a falling knife.” Indeed his number two, Anne Williams-Isom, will succeed him as CEO at the organization he says he still loves. He will continue to serve on its board.

Geoff Canada graduated from Bowdoin in 1974, the year I arrived. Over the years, I had shaken his hand, read his books, and admired him from afar, including being deeply moved by his own shattering journey described in the 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman. So the chance to sit down and really talk with this remarkable man on the occasion of his fortieth Bowdoin reunion was too enticing to pass up.

He is commanding but warm, forceful, and yet very, very funny. Maybe the best word to describe Canada is “wise.” In short, he is precisely what you want a pioneer to be—or, if the country was very lucky, a politician. There have been rumors he might run for office, now that his day-to-day work at HCR is over. “Any truth to that?” I ask the father of four. “Not a chance!” he says emphatically. “I have been married eighteen years to a woman who has zero interest in public life.” He adds with a laugh, “And I intend to stay married to her.” Not that people haven’t asked, including former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who urged him to run for mayor. President Obama has often sought his counsel.

Sometimes it’s not good to meet your heroes. This time, it was very good. In a wide-ranging conversation both personal and political, Geoff Canada calls it as he sees.

CM: What it was like as a kid to show up in Brunswick, Maine?

GC: It’s 1969. I win a full scholarship from the Masons to go to any state school. Now, I grew up in the city, but I moved with my grandparents out to Wyandanch High School. It’s a tough little place. The kids aren’t doing well. I’m one of the top students there, so I win this scholarship. Any state university you want, full scholarship, room and board, book money, the whole ride. I’m in heaven. I want to go to Stony Brook University, the best party school on Long Island, right?

CM: That was as big as you could dream.

GC: I couldn’t dream any bigger than that. The principal’s assistant was a woman who knew about Bowdoin. She just kept harassing me about Bowdoin: ”You have to fill out this application.” Finally, I got in a little trouble. I had to see the principal. She said, “Look, I’ll take care of this if you do your application. So, you write it out, I’ll type it, and we’ll send it in.” I’m like, fine, I’ll get this woman off my case. I write it out; she types it; she sends it in.

July comes, and I tell people—you have to remember, this is ’69. So I tell folks—when I come out of the fog, it’s like, “I haven’t heard from Stony Brook.” I knew I had gotten accepted. I called Stony Brook. They said, “We never heard of you.”

Now, the thing about 1970—you’re poor, African American—you’re going right to Vietnam. I knew it. I had zero interest in this. And I’m thinking, “I am now going to war.” So I am panic-struck, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I decide—“I think I got into that other school. I never opened that letter.” So I go in the drawer, and there’s the letter from Bowdoin; it’s unopened.

CM: No. No.

GC: This is a true story. The letter’s unopened. I open the letter; it says, “Welcome to the class of 1974. Please contact us by”—I don’t know—“May 1st, and tell us whether or not you’re going to go.” So I’m like, “Oh, shit. I gotta talk my way into this school.”

I get on the phone. I call the admissions office. I say, “Hi, this is Geoff Canada. I just never received my dorm assignment from you all.” And the woman said, “Oh, hold on, hold on.” She looks it up. “Mr. Canada, we never got an acceptance.” I said, “No, you did, you did.” She said, “No, we are very careful about those kind of things. We never got it. I’m sorry.”

I had to play the race card, and I did. I said, “You’re just doing this to me because I’m black.” So when I say “because I’m black,” this is what I don’t know. In ’69, the black students, with white students, closed down Bowdoin because they weren’t admitting enough black students, and they were desperate to try and get black students to go to Bowdoin. And so when I said “because I’m black,” she said, “Can you hold on a second?” She comes back. She says, “Look, I’m sorry, Mr. Canada. I don’t know what happened, but we’re going to admit you.”

So I get in. I’m not even thinking about it anymore. I’m in. It’s fine. End of August comes, I have to go to school. I fly into Portland, Portland Jetport, in 1970 . . .

CM: I remember—the guy who flew the plane took your luggage off too.

GC: I know. I’m just like, “This must be a tiny city in Maine.” I don’t know anything! I don’t even know where Maine is. I mean, I wasn’t a dumb kid. But I knew nothing about geography. I thought Maine was, like, right after Connecticut, you’re just right there.

So I go on Bowdoin’s campus, and I’m walking around, and I just say, “Where are all the girls?” So I go to the admissions office and I say, “Excuse me, I’m new. I’m a freshman. Where’s the girls’ campus?” And the woman just looks at me and says, “I am so sorry. This is an all-boys school.” I just said—it was inconceivable for me to think of. You get a bunch of eighteen-year-olds together for four years, and there’s not a girl to be seen, not one.

CM: And you’re in the middle of the Maine woods. 

GC: But that’s the other thing I said, because I honestly didn’t know anything. I said to the woman, “Well, could you just tell me where the black community is?”

CM: You did not.

GC: I did. I figured, everywhere I’ve been, there’s been a ’hood; you just have to find it. I’m good. She was like, “You are in it. The most black people in Maine are right here.”

CM: [Laughter] That’s hysterical! So, what happened?

GC: So this is the end of the story, which is actually true. So I go—I have no idea what Bowdoin is. I don’t know it’s a great school. I don’t know anything about it, and as soon as I found out—when I went in 1970, it was the most selective school in America. I said, “Oh, shit.” I was like, “I can’t make it here. This is way beyond what I can do.” So, the black students called us all together as freshmen, and I met the most brilliant black young people I had ever met—I had never seen anything like it. These guys were so articulate. They were so educated. And they were telling us, “This place is no joke. You’re gonna get an education.” And I was like, “They could do this to you? They could actually change you from who I was into one of these guys? I’m gonna stay.” Two weeks later, they call my mother from Stony Brook and they say, “Where’s Geoff?” And she called me and said, “Look, there was a mix-up. It was the summer help. They didn’t know where the stuff was. They’re waiting for you to go.” And I told her, “I’m not going. I’m not going.”

CM: Wow.

GC: I said, “If they can do for me what they did for these other kids I saw,” I said, “I think this is the place.”

CM: That’s just an incredible story. I was growing up in Auburn, Maine, thinking Bowdoin was “the place on the hill.” No one in my family had ever gone to college.

GC: One of my best friends was a guy who lived in a tiny town that was three-and-a-half hours north of Brunswick. His name was Dennis, and he was—I was poor. I had never seen poverty like this.

CM: Rural poverty.

GC: I went to visit him. There was no indoor plumbing. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “You know what?” I said, “Look. You win this contest. This is nothing like I’ve ever seen.”

CM: Incredible, huh?

GC: And he found Bowdoin to be a more alien place than I did, and I was on another planet. But he was like, “Oh, no.”

CM: Did he stay?

GC: He stayed. He stayed, and he graduated. He is somewhere in Maine, teaching in a little town. He’s a brilliant guy.

CM: So what was the lesson of Bowdoin for you?

GC: It was two things. It was an actively diverse group of men and, later, women, ’cause they let women in the following year.

CM: Right. I was in the fourth class.

GC: Actively diverse. The debates were constant. They were intense. People were passionate, and they were mostly civil, although sometimes they crossed over. But mostly civil.

So one of the things I learned was to fight in the realm of ideas. And there was the role of education, which is obviously what I cared about, so that was one thing.

The other thing was, which I just know changed me, I had a personal relationship with professors that went beyond the classroom. These were lunches. These were rides out in the Maine woods to discuss philosophy of life and other stuff. It was very much a part of my education, being with these brilliant men and women. And I think that I have felt—kids who go to these big colleges, who actually don’t get the real professors to teach to them, actually don’t get to know them—I think they’ve missed a great part of education, because that to me was part of the Bowdoin education, which was huge.

CM: But Geoff, how—why—were you able to survive your childhood and make your way to Bowdoin?

GC: Well, clearly, my mother was, and is, one of the most educated people I knew. She had dropped out of college. My mother had four kids—husband left us when we were all infants. She worked and did the best she could do, spent some time on welfare. But she was a really avid reader. And she was way beyond her time, because she didn’t care what we read, as long as we read. So she read adult novels. She has read at least a book a week ever since I’ve known her. So she would give me them after she would read them, “You’ll find this interesting.” And when I was eleven and twelve years old, I was reading adult novels. And I loved them, because they transported me from the South Bronx to all of these crazy places and wonderful experiences.

My mother still reads about a book a week, and she’s eighty-four. And it’s just been something that was part of our growing up. But that just prepared me, it didn’t save me.

What saved me was an accident of fate, which I think—every time I think about it, it makes me so angry, that for lots of kids this is the deal. Just an accident of fate. And here was the accident. My grandparents moved to this little town in Long Island called Wyandanch. At that time, Long Island was a really segregated place, and if you were black, there were only three or four towns you could live in, and Wyandanch was one of them. No one even pretended it was any different. This was in the mid-’60s.

BioChemist-Marshall-Hopkins-webAnd it’s now in one of the poorest school districts in the state, with one of the worst academic outcomes. But for me, it was an oasis. This was private homes, new sidewalks. I thought I was living in the country. There were four or five good public high schools in New York City: Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech . . . the same ones there are today. Right?

CM: Right.

GC: I had to go to my local school, which was Morris High School, which was just a dropout factory. Always was. Was in ’67. I knew if I ended up going to Morris High School . . .

CM: That was that.

GC: . . . my life was over. But they had special test prep for middle school kids to try and pass the specialized test. But my hormones kicked in. I was spending more time fooling around in the classroom than I was sort of studying for this stuff, which they wanted you to take very seriously. When I was fifteen, I didn’t take any of it seriously, and I could not get in any of those special schools. I took the exam; I did not get in. My life was over.

I went to my grandparents and asked if I could stay with them, and they said that if I lived there the next three years, I’d be in high school out there. And that’s what saved my life. When I went there, all of the guys I went to middle school with got involved in drugs and crime and their lives were destroyed. I was out in this little hick town. I mean, there was nothing to do after school, right? Except do your homework, and that was really what saved my life.

CM: But there was something in you that knew, Geoff. There was something in you that knew to stay where you were, to go to Morris High School.

GC: I think the thing that I knew, Cynthia, that other kids didn’t know: I knew there was another world, ’cause I had lived in it . . .

CM: Since you’d read books.

GC: . . . in the books. I knew there was a world where people weren’t burned and beaten and raped and brutalized, and I just knew there was no way for us to get there from places like the South Bronx, unless you got an education. It was the only way. And even then, we didn’t know whether or not we could get there, but we knew there was no option if you couldn’t go to college.

CM: And is it still—it remains the truth.

GC: It’s still the same. It’s still the same. And today, it’s even worse for this reason.

CM: Why?

GC: My mother would say to us, if we didn’t graduate high school, we’d end up in the garment district folding racks of clothes, right? Which is just, like, a dead-end job. But it was a job. We assumed you could get a job; you just wouldn’t get a good job. Now if you don’t have an education, there’s nothing for kids.

CM: Well, schools were lousy then, and they’re still lousy.

GC: They’re still lousy.

CM: How can it be the case in America that this is acceptable?

GC: Part of it, I think, is this: people think it’s “those kids” and not “our kids.”

Our lunch arrives. . . and I ask Geoff about the high rate of incarceration for young black men.

GC: If you’re fourteen, and you have gotten every signal from the education department that you are a failure, then you can reasonably say, “There’s no way I’m going to college, and there’s no way I’m gonna get a job,” you begin to think of, “Well, how can I earn some money?” It’s an accident which drug is in your community. So, if you’re poor, and you’re young, and you’re male, in the inner cities, it’s mostly been marijuana. It was crack cocaine. It was heroin. If you are in Appalachia, everybody knows it’s methamphetamines. All the guys, that’s what they do. They go into drugs. They know there’s a good chance they’re going to get arrested. It comes with the territory. If you ask them “What’s plan B?” they have no plan B. And that’s been part of—now, this is the part that people find controversial, I think.

I think the music industry has been powerful. I think the portrayer of this criminal behavior—carrying weapons, shooting people, selling drugs—as a lifestyle choice, by smart and intelligent and talented black people, is an absolute disgrace. And I have blamed the industry for this, and I think that they—in the early years, they used to make the argument “We’re just talking about the reality that we see.” That is not the case. Most of these guys are well educated; they’re fairly sophisticated. And the fact that they keep sending this message into the inner cities, “That’s who you are”—working-class and middle-class black kids feel pressured to be involved in this behavior to demonstrate that they can hang out.

CM: That they’re cool.

GC: “This is who we are.”

CM: Right, it’s the definition of how you’re going to be a cool guy.

GC: It is. And when I was growing up, the worst thing you could be called was “an Uncle Tom.” Right?

CM: Right.

GC: “You’re an Uncle Tom.” To me, this is the equivalent of the pressure these young kids feel like. If you’re not involved in that life, somehow you’re not authentically black. And it’s been a hard job, because unlike the old days, if that culture is available twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, these are the most exciting—I mean, how many different ways can you curse and say horrible things about women? It’s just horrible, and it’s all the time. And the music is brilliantly crafted. These kids are really quite talented. So it’s too much. You’re fourteen years old. You’re in Detroit. You’ve been listening to this crap for ten years, eight years, six years, and you’re listening to some teacher telling you something else. To me . . .

CM: Teacher’s gonna lose.

GC: Teacher’s gonna lose. Part of the reason we wanted to do the Zone is because we think we have to change the culture.

CM: So talk to me about the success of the Zone, because it’s amazing what you’ve accomplished.

GC: We have charter schools, but 75 percent of my kids go to traditional public schools.

CM: Oh, I didn’t realize that.

GC: This is not a charter school strategy. People keep trying to make it that because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that most of my kids we have in college went through traditional public schools. The press won’t write about it. People don’t want to talk about it. They’re not interested in this. They’re just not. And it’s been very frustrating to me because what they think of is that this is charter schools and that’s how you’re doing this, and it’s not. So that part I think is very important for this reason.

CM: Okay.

GC: Today we have 954 kids in college.

CM: Wow.

GC: Ten years ago, when I had about fifty kids in college, if you asked a kid growing up in Harlem, “Do you know anybody going to college?” they would probably say, “I think there’s a girl on 120th Street, but she is so smart.” And you say, “Well, you could”—“No, no, you have to be brilliant to go to college. No one goes.”

When you have 900-plus kids in college, my kids will come home—most of those kids will work for me this summer—that nine-year-old would think every black kid they see in Harlem is in college. Every one. If you ask them if they could go to college, they’ll look and say, “Well, if she goes to college, of course I could go to college.”

I mean, this idea of “how do you change the norm?” It is now abnormal to be nineteen and not in college versus the opposite. So that’s one thing, and I think that this idea of preaching scale is absolutely critical.

Here’s another thing—we never talk about it. I don’t know one of my kids that have come through my program that is in jail. So this idea—and people have said, “Well, all the kids gonna get jobs?” No. Because the economy sucks. There’s just no way around that. But I don’t have any of my kids going to college and coming back and thinking, “I’ve been looking for a job. I can’t find one. I think I’m gonna go on the corner of 175th Street, sell some weed.” Hasn’t happened. Doesn’t happen. They don’t do it. They go out. They look. They get depressed. They get anxious. They don’t turn to crime, and they don’t turn to that destructive behavior which has driven communities like Harlem forever, and I think that’s really important.

The third thing that I think is really significant in our work is that we’ve sealed our pipeline. I know how many high school seniors I have. I know how many kids in the seventh grade I have. I know how many two-year-olds I have. And we know those kids are going to stay with us. And it’s not just the number of kids going to college. If you look at our college persistence rates, kids who actually are going to graduate in six years, it’s higher than in white America. It’s totally crossed all of those boundaries.

CM: What’s the secret sauce?

GC: I think it’s the fact that when you make a commitment to young people that is an open-ended commitment—it’s not like I’m going be with you through middle school and then, God bless you, I’m not going to see you again, or elementary school, or even high school – that we are going to be there for you, and help you with whatever comes up. If it’s health, we’re going to help you with health. If it’s a job, we’re going to help you with employment. If it’s mental health, we’re going to get you counseling. If it’s family stuff, we’re going to help your family.

The secret sauce is something that we call middle-class America. That’s what it is. People get into it. They fight and they scratch their way into it. Well, what does it take to do that? You find solid families and decent communities—don’t have to be great schools—decent schools, and a belief that you can make it. So it’s about belief, and we think those common denominators are the floor, not the ceiling. People keep thinking our work is the ceiling. And I keep saying, “This is the floor.” It’s not like middle-class folks now think, “Well, if I’m middle-class, I don’t have to worry about my kids.” Right? You worry about them every day. You worry about them when they’re elementary school, middle school. You worry about them when they’re in college.

Our kids will never be privileged, they’ll never have trust funds, but they have a shot at the American dream because they’ve got this set of support.

The country has been absolutely determined to find out what’s the least amount we can spend for the shortest period of time to produce a permanent result in children, and there is not one iota of scientific evidence that that can be done. None. Everyone is like, “Oh, I can’t believe you keep those kids so long.” Because all of the evidence says that’s what it takes. Even if you have money, if you have two parents, if you have good schools, all the evidence says you have got to be be focused on that child throughout all of their childhood into their young adulthood, because they’re going to be susceptible. That’s what we’re trying to do.

CM: Talk to me about President Obama.  Does the president—is he headed in the right direction?

GC: So we have been disappointed. Every year, he puts money into Promise Neighborhoods, and the Congress takes out as much as possible. They’ve done it every year. We were the model. There are twelve places that are replicating our work with federal dollars.

CM: But they’re just not going to give the president a pass on anything.

GC: They’re not. They’re not. It’s just partisan, and to me it’s one of the real—I thought it was brilliant the way they set up the balance of powers. That’s great. But when you get people who really will not put the country’s interests first, that’s a problem.

CM: So we’re really—I mean, we are at gridlock.

GC: We are at gridlock. And I think the president’s grown into power, and I think that’s a mistake. I think he said, “I’m going to do things through executive order, ’cause I’m not fooling around with you guys anymore.” And doing that is one thing. Saying it publicly I think is something else. I don’t think you say that. I don’t think you give in to that thing that says, “I’m not gonna play with you guys anymore. I’m taking my ball, I’m going home.” I understand that. But I think part of the job of leadership is to call out folks for a higher calling, even if they’re not going to come, even if they’re not going to join you; to say to Americans, “Look, this is about the nation. Let’s put the country first.”

Paleo-Marshall-Hopkins-webSo I think there are a couple of things about the president. First of all, I think he absolutely saved America through the financial crisis, and I don’t think people give him any credit for saving the whole financial industry.

But I do not see the jobs necessary in this country. The country is doing just fine without all of those people working, and I think that’s a problem. Companies are making money. Everybody’s feeling good. Except we have this huge group of folks who don’t have a job, and we expect they’re not going to get a job, and I think that’s bad for the president, and I don’t think it’s because the Democrats or the Republicans didn’t get their way. They keep saying how they can create jobs. I don’t see any indication that that will sustain us.

So part of—the other piece of this is technology. Technology is moving at a pace that I think Americans have their heads in the sand (about). Everybody keeps telling me, “Geoff, why are you focusing on college and not on other industrial jobs?” I say, “Can you guarantee me those jobs are going to be here four years from now? No, you can’t.” But there’s some smart kid sitting right now at Stanford, trying to think about how to do that job using technology, and when it happens, it’s over.

CM: It’s over.

GC: It’s over. There’s a whole group of jobs that are going to disappear, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. And that is happening in everything.

CM: Well, and it’s all the jobs that you can get if you don’t go to college.

GC: That’s all of it. All of it.

CM: That’s what’s going to happen.

GC: And another reason I think this education issue is so important: I don’t think there’s a plan B. I just don’t think there’s a plan B. And I think people who pretend that they know a plan B—look, when I talked to the president, he doesn’t have a plan B. When I talked to Secretary Duncan, he doesn’t have a plan B. When I’m talking to folks at American Express or Google, they don’t have a plan B. Who has this plan B? Nobody I know.

So I know there’s a group of academics who are upset because I say all kids need to go to college. They’re like, “Geoff, that’s. . .” They’re upset about that. And this is what I tell them: “I know you don’t think all of my kids can go to college, but I bet you think your kids will go to college. I bet there’s not even a doubt in your mind.” And not one of them has ever said, “Yeah, I have doubts.” Not one. And I said, “You know what? Everybody with money is not thinking about what technical skill to get their kids.”

The check arrives, and I ask Geoff about being the first recipient of Bowdoin’s Common Good Award. 

GC: The best speech I ever gave. Let me tell you the essence of that speech. I was talking about the fact of, when I was at Bowdoin, wondering how my life was going to end up, and this one professor, Paul Hazelton. . .

CM: Oh, I loved him.

GC: Did you love Paul?

CM: Loved him.

GC: Well, you’re gonna get this story. Paul Hazelton took me for a ride my second-semester, senior year when I was filled with doubt about whether or not I was going to make it as an educator and I wanted to change education. And he took me to a river, which the Maine folks know what it is.

CM: Androscoggin.

GC: So we get out the car, a little car he had. And he says, “Geoff, say salmon swim up this river here. And if they go to the right, there’s a canning factory right there, and if they go to the left, they spawn.”  Bowdoin professors were full of heavy stuff like that, that you would sit there and say, “What the heck does that mean?” Right? But the name of my speech was “To the Left of the Canning Factory Lies Hope.”

Part of what drives me was this need to make the right choices, and Paul Hazelton and that intense love that professors had for you was really what mattered, and his belief in me that I would go to the left and I would do the right thing was something that told me—when I’m giving this speech, what I don’t know is Hazelton is not there because he is suffering from cancer, and he would be dead in two years. The whole room is weeping. I’m weeping ’cause I love this guy. I don’t know he’s dying. I don’t know anything about this.

And I am telling them how this guy changed my life and how he showed me something through this one magical day, right? That sometimes life comes down to these strategic choices, and I just hope—I just ended it saying, “And I hope he understands that I went to the left.” Oh, everybody was crying. I’m crying; everybody’s crying. And I don’t even know the subtext of what’s going on until after the speech when they say, “How did you know?” I know. They said, “How did you know?” I said, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I thought the guy was fine. I was just . . .” So it was a speech I could never give again. Out of the Bowdoin context, it means nothing to anyone. It was the best speech I’ve ever given in my life.

I think that we’ve got to really deal with this issue about culture. And I think we’ve pooh-poohed it. The idea of family, the economics of family, meaning how difficult is it going to be for one poor person to raise a child successfully, and how do we talk about this, and how do we say to folk some of these decisions have to be thought through? I think we’ve done a very, very poor job in talking to young people about it, because people are afraid of religion, and you don’t want to get into—but I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about data, and what does the data say and how do we talk to kids about the data and about smart decisions and not-smart decisions. And I think a lot of this has to do with whether or not kids believe they have a future, and this belief that you should postpone certain kinds of events—having children, and risky behaviors, and other things— because you have a future. Kids who don’t believe they have a future, it doesn’t make any sense to them.

I don’t want the teacher who can’t teach algebra to be able to try and teach my kid about why they shouldn’t become great. We really need to think about whose job that is, how do we get those messages to young people, because in places where you can eat too much, drink too much, we’ve got a huge (problem)—you know this heroin epidemic going on in the white community right now?

CM: Oh, yeah. It’s terrible.

GC: No one seems to be really talking about it for real. It’s a horror show. These are American young people. Who is talking to them about this stuff? If Google can trace a flu outbreak by seeing who Googles “Tamiflu,” which they did, before the CDC can find it, which they will tell you in a minute they’re able to do, because of the sort of massive database they have, how is it that we can have outbreaks happening in communities, and social scientists and politicians and religious leaders don’t understand we need to get these messages to our young people? I think that this is part of what’s left for us to do in this country, and really smart and talented folk—Bowdoin kids who believe in the common good—after seeing it, that’s something they need to aspire to, in my opinion.

CM: So I can’t believe you’re going to completely withdraw from public life.

GC: No, no, no. No, and I should make that clear. I am going to go into the Harlem Children’s Zone one day a week, I’m going to stay on the boards, and I’m going to continue a very active advocate life, although I don’t know what that means right now. But there is no—I’m not going to go and get a rocking chair and pick up smoking a pipe or something or try and chill out for a while. I am going to take a few weeks where I do absolutely nothing.

A few weeks, it seems to me, is about all the time America can afford to let him take off.

Cynthia McFadden ’78 holds a law degree from Columbia and is senior legal & investigative correspondent at NBC News. Prior to joining NBC, she spent twenty years at ABC News, the past nine as a co-anchor of Nightline. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaMcFadden.

Marshall Hopkins is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to working as an illustrator, he is also a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker magazine. He currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter @marshallhopkins.