Local Teen Heads to Yale. . . Despite the Odds

by Anitra D. Brown

DSCN0548Leonard Galmon says his 12-year-old sister recently announced that she wants to go to college—Harvard, to be exact. He takes a second to appreciate it, and he ultimately concurs that it is rather likely that the pre-teen girl’s epiphany has everything to do with the fact that her big brother will start his freshman year at Yale University this fall.

While this young New Orleanian might seem a bit unaware of the impact he is having on his siblings, as the eldest of six, he says he has always tried to set a good example for them.

“I have always tried to make the best decisions I can,” he says in a tone that seems far too pragmatic for his 18 years.

He is aware that his brothers and sisters are watching him as are many others. He doesn’t want to let anyone down, but he also plans to follow his own path—a path that has so far led him to a scholarship at one of the nation’s most prestigious Ivy League schools.

But that trajectory has not been filled with a series of well thought-out steps or some grand design. In fact, it has been crowded more with life’s ups and downs, tough breaks, spontaneous decisions, and, well, instinctive gut calls.

Galmon’s earliest years started off rocky. His mother was 13 when he was born. His father was killed when he was only four years old. At only nine years old, Galmon and his entire family were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. They left their uptown home to spend the night around the corner with his grandparents. They returned home the next day to find the home’s walls had fallen into the street.

After broken levees devastated New Orleans, they walked to the Westbank in search of a way out of the city. It was few months in a shelter in New Iberia, then a year in Houston. After that, the family moved to Baton Rouge where they remained until he was ready to start the ninth grade.

Then, they returned to New Orleans, where Galmon began his freshman year at the RSD-run Walter L. Cohen High School. He didn’t want to join the band for his elective class; so as a freshman, he chose art. He also spent his sophomore and junior years at Cohen High. Even after his family moved from uptown to the Desire neighborhood in Ninth Ward, Galmon decided to continue attending Cohen, despite the long commute across town.

As he prepared for his senior year and knowing that he wanted to go to college, he decided to transfer upstairs to the charter-school operated Cohen College Prep High School. Just before his senior year, Galmon also wanted to focus a little more on his art. He applied and was accepted to NOCCA. He says he believes he would have been college-bound even if he had stayed at the direct-run Cohen High, but figured that the college prep school had more resources to help him achieve his goal. So he wanted to go there, instead.

He applied to several top schools in addition to Yale, including Columbia, Brown, Tufts, Wesleyan, NYU, LSU and others. He visited a few campuses, including Tufts and Yale; and, in the end, he was torn between the two.

But his decision to attend Yale over Tufts was an easy one. The land where the Tufts campus sits is actually a hill—the highest point in Medford, Mass. (just outside of Boston). The hilly acres of land were nice to look at, Galmon says, but thought of having to walk those hills was not so inviting. Oh, yeah, and Yale has the better art program, he says.

Galmon is excited about attending Yale. At the time of the interview for this article, he had about a week to go before heading to the Connecticut campus. Once there, he expects a week or so of orientation before classes start.

When asked about his future, about where he hopes Yale will lead him, Galmon sounds very much like any 18-year-old off to college for the first time—eager and enthusiastic and just a little uncertain.

“I want to go to school,” he says. “I want to get my education. I want to meet new people and improve my art. The rest, I don’t know. It will happen the way it happens.”

During recent weeks, the teen has been the subject of a number of local news stories, where much has been made of the hard-hitting circumstances surrounding his young life, circumstances that are unfortunately not so alien for too many young people that look like him—a teen mother, a murdered father, and all of the odds in the world stacked against him just because he is a young, Black man in America.

And he gets it. He gets that with one altered choice here or there, things could have been different for him. He gets that all the probabilities and statistics say he shouldn’t be going Yale. He also knows that any number of things over which he has no control could have happened—could still happen—to change the positive track his life in now on. Katrina taught him that. And if he has forgotten that lesson in the nine years since the storm, the narrative of Trayvon Martin and similar stories have probably reinforced that hard message in entirely different ways. Perhaps, that’s why he sometimes doesn’t get all of the fuss made over his success.

Galmon says he has always had what he needed to make good despite the bad that might have surrounded him.

“I never felt like I had too much to worry about,” he says. “My mother and  my grandparents have always been right there to support me every time. It was just life; and I went through it. And here I am.”

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