The reluctant role model

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 20, 2012

Had 826NYC existed when 826 National CEO Gerald Richards was a boy, Richards might have visited the tutoring center himself. He might’ve even been like Santiago, a student at 826 Valencia who told him last year that he aspired to be 826 National’s CEO but has since confessed to being unsure of his career path.

Instead, Richards, who was raised in a low-income family in Harlem, never strayed from the New York City public school system before middle school. He was gifted, and he read avidly, often to dislodge himself from the confines of his family’s limited means. But in school, he was habitually bored and resolvedly uninspired.

“(The public school system) wasn’t built to look at students like me, to see the differences in students,” Richards said. “If you get the kids promoted and you got the kids graduating from sixth grade, that was great. That’s what you were supposed to do.”

And so, just as he said the system had intended, Richards graduated the sixth grade.

But then, Prep for Prep, an education program that seeks out talented students of color in New York to place them in private schools in the city or boarding schools in the northeast, reached out to him.

As a result of this outreach, Richards enrolled in Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York, graduated, then graduated again, this time from Wesleyan University and finally, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It was in Chicago that Richards at last understood his longtime nickname from friends, “the reluctant role model.” He was sitting in a South Side high school that he had entered through metal detectors, and a few students asked him about his past and his plans for the upcoming school break.

Richards told them about his jobs, his travels and his homes in New York and Chicago. He told them about the visit to London he had planned for the break.

The students, who Richards said reminded him of himself, were puzzled and silent.

“And suddenly they were like, ‘You can do things like that?' ” he recalled.

He said they could.