By Katy Kelleher
Photographs by Tristan Spinski
Barrett Takesian ’12 hopes his innovative urban squash program will someday become the most successful pipeline to higher education in the State of Maine.
Tucked away on Noyes Street in Portland, behind a massive glass window with menorah -shaped red metal panes, a diverse group of students gathers on the wooden floor of a squash court to “shout out” positive things about their fellow athletes. They make an uneven circle, sitting with legs crossed or bouncing on their knees—these kids exude pure, infectious energy. In one corner of the court (a wooden and glass box that measures 9.75 meters long and 6.4 meters wide, as per international specifications), Barrett Takesian ’12 sits in sneakers, a sweatshirt, and black athletic pants. All eyes are upon him, even as the kids, who were bussed in by the Portland after-school program Learningworks, fidget lightly, waiting for their turn to call out. One boy praises another’s respectfulness. One girl wearing a bright orange hijab decorated with sequins runs into the court a little late. Her face is one big, happy grin as she looks at Takesian and settles in for their end-of-day ritual.
I’ve been watching the workings of this urban ecosystem for an hour, and I can already tell that there’s something exceptional happening inside this old temple. This is Portland Community Squash (PCS), an after-school urban athletic program available to every student in the Portland Public Schools system. Currently, there are about fifty students in the building, ranging in age from six to eighteen. They’re here to play squash, take yoga classes, work on their homework, and participate in various enrichment programs.
“He talked to me about his idea early on, and I knew that, as young as he is, it would be a huge challenge to raise all that money.”
“When I was little, I thought you had to wear a suit and carry a briefcase to play squash,” Takesian tells me later as we sit in his office. It’s a bare-bones space, outfitted with a standing desk and not much else. It’s clear that his most important work doesn’t take place in this little room. Takesian, like the kids in this building, benefited from an urban squash program, albeit in a slightly different way. Before attending Bowdoin, Takesian went to high school at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. “In Boston, there was this great program called SquashBusters that works with low-income students in squash and education,” he explains. “I grew up playing against those kids.” He wasn’t a part of their program—Milton Academy is a private school that has squash courts on campus and a squash club—but he admired SquashBusters. He realized back then that urban exercise was inherently expensive and not available to everyone. After graduation, he decided to address that problem.
Takesian was an environmental studies and economics coordinate major. While many graduates of Maine colleges decide to leave the state to seek employment, Takesian had spent years living in Southwest Harbor as a child, and he didn’t want to leave the Pine Tree State. “I shook hands with one of my closest friends, and we made a deal to stay in Portland,” he says.
After graduation, he took a job at Unum and started volunteering, first with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and later at the YMCA in Portland. Inspired by the joy working with kids brought to his life, he began to think seriously about starting a community squash program in Portland. Takesian started scheduling daily meetings—one at 8 a.m. and another at 8 p.m.—to speak with the leaders of similar urban squash programs and connecting with potential donors. He calls this period of intensive learning his “unofficial graduate degree.” “I was working on this project seven days a week for three years,” he says.
Early in the process, Takesian pulled in members of the Bowdoin squash community, including former swimming and soccer coach (and winner of twenty-two national squash championships and a world title) Charlie Butt. Takesian met Butt on the courts, where he impressed the legendary player with his enthusiasm for the sport. Butt says, “Right away, I could see Barrett becoming a coach. It was visible in how he played, and how he observed what was going on around him.” The fast-paced game is inherently intellectual, Butt says, and involves a high level of strategic planning. On the court, Takesian displayed an ability to think on his feet and a determination to learn—qualities that would serve him well when he went to launch Maine’s first urban squash program. “He talked to me about his idea early on, and I knew that, as young as he is, it would be a huge challenge to raise all that money,” says Butt.
Squash courts are expensive, particularly if you’re offering use of them for free. But Takesian was determined, and he leveraged his position within the New England squash community to contact donors, plan squash tournaments, and gain support for the cause. “My role was to offer encouragement, because he had this wonderful goal,” says Butt. “I could also help introduce him around to people in the squash world—and I did—but really, he did it all himself.”
When Tomas Fortson, head squash coach at Bowdoin and a former professional squash player, first heard about the project, he had two competing reactions. First, he thought the idea of bringing urban squash to Maine was “a long shot.” But he also recognized that “if anyone was going to pull this off, it would be Barrett.” Fortson had worked closely with Takesian when he was in college—Takesian was a team captain—and had seen Takesian grow as both a player and a coach. He knew the young man was resilient and resolute. Fortson adds that squash is a sport with “a lot of wealthy benefactors, if you will, especially in the US. It’s always been a private club and private school sport.” He’s happy to see that change, though change is moving slowly. “Now we’re beginning to see more kids who have gone through urban programs at Bowdoin,” he says. Students with access to the sport tend to skew toward the extreme ends of the class divide; they either come to squash through urban programs offered for free or reduced rates, or they come to squash through their private school programs. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. “The squash community, as a whole, benefits from it being more diverse,” Fortson says. “Hopefully Barrett will lead the way, and we’ll be seeing some of his kids come to Bowdoin.”
“They’re learning more than they realize.”
If they don’t come to Bowdoin, then perhaps they’ll end up at one of the other fourteen universities that have banners hanging around the PCS building. These colorful flags serve both as a tribute to the donors who made it all possible (Takesian raised over $1.5 million in 2016 to purchase the historic temple, and another $156,000 to provide financial and transportation assistance to Portland-area students), as well as a reminder of the program’s ultimate objective. “From the beginning, our goal was to be the most successful college pathway program in the state,” Takesian says, which is why he started Rally Portland, an innovative subset of PCS. “We want to be a model for other programs and show how working with students over a long-term time horizon can work,” he says. The hope is that students will come for the squash matches, but stay for the guided study time. By melding athletics and academics, Takesian wants to create a holistic after-school program that molds young students into conscientious participants in the classroom, sportsmanlike players on the court, and respectful individuals overall.
Although Portland Community Squash is still in its infancy, parents and school officials are already observing a shift in the mindsets of participating students. Michael Paterniti says his fifteen-year-old daughter, May, comes home from PCS “in the best mood” and with all her homework done. “One of the great things about the program is that, when you mix sports and study, they both become normalized,” he says. “The integration of physical activity and homework time becomes something that is stabilizing and enriching.” He says his daughter’s grades have improved, and that the “communal experience of sharing sport and study time has inspired her to push herself a little harder.” Paterniti also reports that when there’s a time crunch and May has to give up an activity, she always advocates for squash to stay a part of her schedule—even though squash and homework go hand-in-hand. “I think when you do academic work in the same space where you’re also doing yoga, and getting in a hard workout, it all begins to blur into a space of play,” says Paterniti. “And that’s really exciting.”
“In a really short amount of time, Portland Community Squash has grown to become a really coherent program that kids absolutely buy into,” says Ben Donaldson, principal of Lyman Moore Middle School. While there are many after-school programs available to his students, Donaldson says they don’t all maintain the kids’ attention. “The program that they’re building over there is something more and more kids want to be involved with and to access,” he explains. “That’s the best metric we currently have for whether it’s an effective program.”
Like Paterniti, Donaldson admires how PCS melds physical activity and academic work into a harmonious enrichment program. “I visited a few weeks ago, and I watched as they went from station to station—squash, yoga, and then to a lesson,” he recalls. “That day, they did a nutrition lesson. They had someone there teaching the basics of how to make a smoothie, so kids could make themselves a healthy after-school snack.” He says the kids are kept continually moving and learning, and that they’re “learning more than they realize.”
“I think when you do academic work in the same space where you’re also doing yoga, and getting in a hard workout, it all begins to blur into a space of play.”
For Donaldson, a key element of PCS is how it provides leadership opportunities to students who may not normally have access to them. He cites the example of a Lyman Moore sixth-grader who “sees PCS as a ticket to get into college. This is a multilingual student, and I honestly doubt he was thinking about college at the beginning of sixth grade.” But after he got involved with PCS, something changed. “Now he’s talking about where he wants to go to school. He’s psyched about it,” Donaldson says.
“Over the life of the organization, they’ve begun to really engage the full range of kids from Portland. We’re seeing tons of multilingual kids from our school that have really latched onto Portland Community Squash,” Donaldson says. “I think that’s an incredible piece of what they’re doing—they’re taking something that’s typically an upper-class sport and using it to serve all kinds of kids.” Although PCS is open to everyone, only students who show exceptional promise and positivity are selected to take part in Rally Portland. Katrina Buchta, director of education at PCS, says Rally Portland is a program that requires intense commitment but offers big payoffs. “We want to take kids from sixth grade until college—and continue working with them even after college,” she says. “The emphasis of Rally Portland is on working with kids who don’t have access to a lot of other after-school programs. Kids who will commit to playing squash four days a week…. Kids who are positive, respectful, and put in a lot of effort. Kids who can be leaders.” Right now, Rally Portland serves nine students, but Buchta says they hope to add a few more in the spring, and more again come fall 2018. Students with access to Rally Portland, Donaldson says, “carry themselves differently. It gives them so much confidence.”
During my visit to PCS, I was able to spend some time in the classrooms, where students were learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and chatting quietly about their days. The mood in the classroom was calm, but not without energy. As the sun set outside, a group of seven students sat scattered around several small tables and responded to writing prompts that asked them about respect, effort, and positivity—the three core values of PCS. They talked occasionally with one another, and smiled at their papers, but for the most part they remained focused on the task at hand. Mallori, an eleven-year-old from King Middle School, was eager to take a break from work and talk to a reporter about her experience. She told me that she likes being a part of Portland Community Squash because there are “less fights here than there are at school.” She says, “I like the game a lot. It’s really fun and unique. It’s fun because we get to see how strong we are, and we can learn about other people’s interests.” For Mallori, a standout element of the program is how it fosters a sense of respect between her peers. Though admittedly, she didn’t put it that way. “We just really respect each other’s opinions, and how we do things,” she says. “We respect their religions and the things they love. You can make friends here really easily.”
“Afterwards, you’re refreshed. Your mind is free.”
Auxane, a thirteen-year-old student at Lyman Moore Middle School, was entirely focused on her writing—until I interrupted to ask about her experience with the program. “I come here for academics, that’s why,” she says. She likes playing the game, but she knows there is a life beyond the squash court, and she wants to make the most of it. “I want to succeed and go to college, and to get into some really good schools. That’s my future, and being here is going to help me with that.” She’s a self-identified action-learner who loves science and hates sitting down. It can be hard for her to focus on schoolwork, but she likes to keep busy and values hard work, so she keeps coming back to this former temple to play, learn, and grow. After finishing a squash match or taking a yoga class, she feels ready to sit down and tackle her homework. “When you’re playing, you feel excited and energetic,” she says. “But afterwards, you’re refreshed. Your mind is free.”
Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and author of the book Handcrafted Maine. A former managing editor of Maine magazine, she has reported for The Wall Street Journal and WBUR-Boston.
Tristan Spinski’s photos can be found in Audubon, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He lives in Portland.
This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.