A Sophomore's Rise From Illiteracy Leads to a White House Stage

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Troy Simon, a sophomore at Bard College, is greeted by President Obama during Thursday's White House summit on college access. At the gathering, Mr. Simon was held up as an example of how education can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds transcend long odds.
January 17, 2014

The journey of Troy Simon, who catapulted from teenage illiteracy to a White House stage, has been defined by grit and perseverance.

At the White House summit on college access on Thursday, the Bard College sophomore was held up as an example of how education can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds transcend long odds. He introduced the first lady, Michelle Obama, who pronounced him "pretty awesome."

President Obama said he had been inspired by Mr. Simon's rise from an abandoned New Orleans apartment to a dormitory room at Bard.

One reason for Mr. Simon's rise was illustrated as he departed through a White House gate, said Walter Isaacson, the writer and one of Mr. Simon's many mentors. Mr. Simon, Mr. Isaacson said, had already set aside his moment in the spotlight and was focusing on his regret over failing to finish reading four books over the winter break.

"You've got the best excuse of any kid in America for being behind in your reading," Mr. Isaacson said he replied. He was quick, however, to add: "But go home and start reading."

Mr. Simon could not be reached for an interview on Thursday because he was traveling. In his remarks at the White House, the sophomore said that he had decided not to accept failure and instead had committed to catching up, hoping to become an example for his siblings.

"I saw my brothers and sisters heading down the same path," he said, "and decided to change my life."

Six years removed from tap dancing on the streets of the French Quarter to earn a few bucks, Mr. Simon now studies English literature at Bard. One of his former teachers, Sarah Bliss, remembers Mr. Simon's refusal to lift his head from his desk in a fifth-grade writing class in Houston, where his family had temporarily relocated after Hurricane Katrina. At the time, at age 12, he still couldn't read.

Locked in poverty and beset by bad luck, Mr. Simon decided to teach himself to read.

"I smoked until I couldn't feel myself. I was trying to get away from the world," he wrote in a personal essay, "Game," published in May 2011 in Whispering Conscience, a literary journal run by the Urban League College Track in New Orleans. But, he wrote, "there's no way to run from this world."

'I Am Changed'

A serendipitous reunion with Ms. Bliss led to a long-term partnership in his efforts to learn. During Mardi Gras in 2008, two years after they'd last seen each other in Houston, Ms. Bliss noticed Mr. Simon riding his bike down a thronged Magazine Street.

Soon they were reviewing lists of vocabulary words on Saturdays at a McDonald's in New Orleans, where both had returned a year after the hurricane. When Ms. Bliss called, he often told her he was at the library reading the dictionary.

"As for me," Mr. Simon wrote in an essay published in Young in America: New Orleans, an anthology of pieces by Urban League College Track students, "I am changed, have let myself be changed, by education."

Ms. Bliss said Mr. Simon had encouraged his sister to earn her GED and hopes she will attend community college.

He has also told Ms. Bliss that he plans to become a fifth-grade English teacher after he graduates from Bard. He asks Ms. Bliss about her current students. When they doubt themselves, Ms. Bliss says, she tells them how Mr. Simon refused to buckle.

Mr. Isaacson said Mr. Simon's story proves what one student can achieve when a village of supporters mobilizes to help. Mr. Simon received writing instruction from Urban League College Track, a college-preparatory program through which he was introduced to Mr. Isaacson.

He won a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, which identifies promising students who might be overlooked in the traditional college-admissions process and sends them off in small groups to prestigious institutions.

"We can't have a society in which the opportunities you have depend so heavily on the ZIP code where you were born," Mr. Isaacson said.

The importance of educational opportunities was one theme of Thursday's White House summit. Another takeaway, Mr. Isaacson said, might be that students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds need "to work 20 percent harder" to succeed.

Mr. Simon shares his college essays with mentors like Ms. Bliss and Mr. Isaacson, they say, asking for advice on how to fill lingering gaps from a childhood of often-inadequate instruction. His goal for winter break, Mr. Isaacson said the college sophomore had told him, was to finish four books and to compile a list of all the new vocabulary he had learned.

"He knows how to keep pushing," Mr. Isaacson said.