At the debate team’s first meeting, Brandon P. Fleming leaped atop a table and laid down some hard truth.
“If you are not prepared to change the world, you shouldn’t be here,” he told a gathering of 25 Black children who social workers had deemed “underserved” and “at-risk” — bureaucratic buzzwords that hint at a world of pain and struggle.
This “Dead Poets Society” moment stunned the kids into silence, but they would not stay quiet for long. “I wondered: Who is this young, educated, Black man, believing in us and challenging us this way, demanding we be accountable for our education?” recalls Maya Hadley, who was part of that group in 2018. “I was not accustomed to teachers like that. He glowed. It was intimidating at first and exhilarating.”
Fleming, a fledgling educator at the time with a silver tongue, a troubled past and relatively skimpy academic credentials, had six months to teach these overlooked, underestimated kids the fundamentals of debate before taking them to Harvard to compete against elite debate teams from around the world. Observers were skeptical, but he knew the students could do it, because he had done it.
“People were saying, ‘How can they compete if they’ve never even heard of debate?’” he says. “I just replied that I would level the playing field.”
Fleming put them through their paces, teaching the humanities (“if it’s sociopolitical, we cover it”) like a brotherly drill sergeant. In 2018, his students became the first all-Black team to win the Ivy League summer debate tournament.
“Around that time, people started wondering what was going on in Atlanta,” Fleming says. “I wanted to prove that this was not a one-time thing, so we kept at it, with another group of kids, and we won again.”
Today, the Atlanta team remains undefeated, an eloquent object lesson in how to be “young, gifted, and Black.”
Fleming, now 30, founded the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, which enrolls Atlanta students in the university’s summer residency program, and it has effectively become a pipeline for admissions into the country’s most prestigious schools. He commutes from his home in downtown Atlanta to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“There are a lot of programs geared to juniors and seniors, but we start with the middle grades,” says the organization’s executive director Kellye Britton. “Imagine entering high school already having had the exposure to an Ivy League school. It adds to their confidence and preparation. Just to see those kids’ faces!”
Forbes magazine recognized Fleming on its “30 Under 30” list, and The Root ranked him among the 100 most influential African Americans in 2020. He has spoken at the United Nations General Assembly, which he described as “a rush.”
In this glow, Fleming had planned to write a scholarly book of essays, but colleagues convinced him his hard-edged personal story would prove more compelling. Published by Hachette, his memoir, “Miseducated,” debuted June 15. It is bracingly frank about his phoenix-like rise from a violent, abusive home on the margins and his wayward stint on the streets as a drug dealer. Cornel West penned the foreword. With its gritty details and feel-good ending, this underdog parable already has been optioned for the screen.
“The book was very painful to write,” says Fleming. “I wasn’t sure I should tell what a reprobate I’ve been. But I wrote it for the people who are in a pit of despair, who think they have nowhere to run. I want to show people that no one is beyond redemption. I want them to think of me the next time they see a ‘corner boy.’”
‘Miseducated” opens with a devastating scene from 2010 when Fleming had deliberately overdosed on pills in an attempt to kill himself. “I could not seem to die,” he wrote.
His cocaine-addicted stepfather had regularly beaten him and his siblings, and by age 14, Fleming had fallen in with gangs. Cousins in the Bronx schooled him in being “hard.”
“I was a bully,” he says with a wince. “I beat up the kind of kids I try to mentor now.”
Fleming hated everything about school and never finished reading a single book. “I gave my teachers the middle finger,” he says. He scored in the lowest percentile of the SAT, but his basketball skills carried him to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Then he injured his knee and dropped out during the first semester in 2008.
His mother was in the Army, which deployed her to Iraq for a year. Fleming moved from house to house, crashing on couches and floors. He worked on an assembly line in Anderson, South Carolina, for 10 hours a day. Life seemed hopeless, so he tried to end it.
He used his mother’s G.I. Bill to re-enroll at Liberty. “Teachers had always just promoted me forward because of basketball, so I was operating at college on a middle grade education. I had no idea how to read or write.”
His delinquent impulses surfaced again. Fleming began to cheat, and turned in a plagiarized essay. It landed in the hands of a special educator, though, whom he calls “Professor Nelson” in the memoir.
“She said, ‘I’m not going to fail you. We’re going to redo it,’” he says. “I had never had a teacher show me compassion. She became vulnerable with me, sharing about her battle with cancer. It was shared vulnerability that pierced my wall.”
He acted out one last time. “I ain’t no scholar,” he told her before trying to bolt for the door. She just embraced him, hard, and then began working with him after school.
Professor Nelson introduced Fleming to Malcolm X, and to the heritage of soaring oratory in Black culture. He sold his television and PlayStation, replacing them with books. Soon enough, this one-time “corner boy” was speaking with the laser-precision of Jane Austen, one of his favorite writers. Inspired by the 2007 movie “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington, Fleming joined the university team. The verbal jiu-jitsu thrilled him. Could he become a millennial Frederick Douglass?
“Debate skills represent power,” he says. “We advance ideas through language, and that builds institutions. When you have the ability to galvanize people, that’s leadership.”
Debate also builds empathy, he says. It revolves around a single resolution that requires the ability to argue both sides, affirmative and negative.
While a junior in college, Fleming noticed that some neighborhood kids were on the brink of dropping out of school, so he gathered five of them to study debate on a Saturday. Within two weeks, his class had grown to 30 youths, who not only stayed in school but also started making the honor roll. “It shook the city,” he says, “and showed all of this untapped potential.”
Word spread through the education community about this unlikely miracle worker, and the innovative Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta recruited him.
“Most of them (students) wanted nothing to do with teachers, but I did not have a teacher’s vibe,” he writes. “I was their ally. That’s not necessarily what the school wanted me to be. When Black men are hired in schools, they are often tapped to be the authoritarian stereotype of school enforcer. The guy would have held the paddle a generation earlier. My approach was different: I understood that we must love our students before we can teach them.”
In 2017, Harvard hired him as assistant coach of debate. He strutted the august campus in his Timberlands. “I looked around and didn’t see many faces like mine,” he says, “so I decided to change that.”
Fleming requires his students to dress in matching blazers and wear colorful socks, with bowties for all of the boys. “If we want to attract people of color to academia, we need to add some swag,” he says. “My image of a scholar used to be an old, bearded white guy in funny glasses.” A life of letters, he insists, can be funky. So his students “come correct.”
“People turn their heads and look at us when we walk into a room,” says Osazi Al-Khaliq. Part of the inaugural Atlanta group, he is now a junior at Harvard, a destination he never envisioned until he met Fleming. He admits to copying his mentor’s speech patterns and mannerisms. “I honestly don’t know where my life would be right now if I hadn’t found debate.”
That’s music to his teacher’s ears. “There is only one way that I’ll know I have done my job,” says Fleming. “It won’t be an award. It will happen about a decade from now when my students visit me and boast of their feats. I will ask them: How did you make someone else’s life better?”
by Brandon P. Fleming
272 pages, $28