Ten years ago, if someone would have told me that I would be studying sociology at Bates College in Maine right after high school, I would have told them they were crazy. I grew up in the South, and being close to family has meant the world to me, even through the tough times when I didn’t feel like it was my home.For the most part, I had a great childhood in New Orleans, but I never felt like I fit in with the kids I went to school with. I have a huge family—not only do I have eight siblings, but both of my parents have nine siblings each. We lived in the Calliope Projects before the storm, where drugs and violence were all around us. But because of my family, I managed to steer clear of all that.I value family more than anything because I know that when things are hard, you need to have a strong bond with those around you. Katrina really cemented that.When Katrina hit, it tore my family apart—my uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews all scattered to places like Dallas, San Antonio and Atlanta. For me, my parents and siblings, it was Houston. I grew to love living in Texas after five years, and it was fascinating learning about the state’s culture and history. I also played basketball, and was really looking forward to playing on a team in high school.
But things changed after there was a death in the family and we decided to move back to New Orleans before I began my freshman year of high school.We moved to Central City in New Orleans after living in Texas for five years. It was hard getting to know the city as a young adult. For one, navigating public transportation was a whole new challenge. Now that I was older, I was exposed to a lot more crime and violence. I sometimes heard gun shots when I was walking to school, and I often heard from my peers that people we knew had been shot or were in jail. I never really adjusted to that.
Fortunately, we moved back to New Orleans just in time for me to start high school at what is now Cohen College Prep (then, it was called New Orleans College Prep). Soon after I started College Prep, I knew that this was the best school that I had ever been to. I immediately felt comfortable and safe. I loved my teachers, who always seemed to be available after class, and always had time to check in with me about my work, or even about my life. I’ll never forget Mr. Purkins, my English teacher. We formed a strong bond because I felt like he genuinely cared about me. I had teachers in the past who didn’t seem invested in me, but that wasn’t the case with Mr. Purkins or with Mr. Witkins, my history teacher. Mr. Witkins was always making students laugh, and he spent a lot of extra time tutoring me when he knew that I was nervous about an exam.What I loved best about Cohen College Prep was that I really felt like I had a second family. After I made friends and started to do well in school, I finally felt like I was home again.As a student, I guess I was also lucky in another way—I had parents that always wanted to know about my assignments or what books I was reading. My dad and I had a kind of book club in high school, where I would pass my school books along to him after I was done so we could discuss them.
I was looking forward to college, and imagined myself going to Louisiana State University (LSU) and seeing my family on the weekends.I never imagined I would fall in love with Maine, but I did. Cohen had what they called a fly-in program, where select students were chosen to fly to an out-of-state college campus and stay for the weekend. My principal, Rahel Wondwossen, had gone to this small private school up in Maine called Bates and thought I would like it. My guidance counselor, who happened to be from Maine, felt the same way. Both of them knew how much I appreciated the small, cohesive environment at Cohen, and they thought I could get that same experience at a smaller college like Bates.When the fly-in application deadline was getting close, I got cold feet. I had never even flown on a plane before, and I was already pretty set on going to LSU. I started my application for the program, but I never finished it. An hour before the midnight deadline, my principal called and convinced me to finish the application. Finally, I finished it. I was accepted and took my first plane ride up to Maine. While I was there, my school put me in touch with alumni who were attending Bates, which I really enjoyed.
Bates is a perfect space for me to reflect on what I’ve learned from New Orleans as I study sociology. I have friends now who had experiences that were very different from my own. And while the things I have experienced have sometimes been hard, today I am enjoying making new friends and learning about people that come from different backgrounds.In the sociology course that I took this year, we learned about crime and deviance and how it affects people. I realized that I want to help people who were formerly incarcerated find work and decrease their chances of going back to prison. I just want to see crime gone; I am passionate about playing a role where I can help people who want to change.When I was struggling to fill out the fly-in application and having serious doubts about whether I was ready for Maine, my principal, Ms. Wondwossen, told me, “You’re going to thank me for this.” Today, I have a lot to thank her for.
Anton Brown is a native of New Orleans who graduated from Cohen College Prep in 2014 and now attends Bates College in Maine, where he studies sociology and plans to work to reduce prison recidivism.