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Back To School

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Think you're cool? See yourself as a master of some corner of the advertising universe, oiling the wheels of commerce and contributing to the greater good, defined as the gross national product or an Effie award or something?

Try explaining what you do to a sixth grader.

Better yet, get yourself on the 5 train up to the South Bronx, get off at 174th Street, and walk over to Vyse Avenue and 173rd, to C.S. 50, and present yourself as a representative of the big-time corporate world of marketing and advertising to a bunch of wide-eyed students gathered for Career Day at this very public school, their mere presence defying you, pleading with you, to connect with them in an informative way.

It's a humbling experience, believe me.

A lifetime ago, a letter lands in my inbox—back when I had an inbox, back when I worked at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and wore neckties to work and sat on the board of directors ("sat" being the appropriate description) and had an office around the corner from our chairman's. It's from PENCIL, a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 "to galvanize and coordinate meaningful civic involvement in New York City public education to improve student achievement." Their flagship program is Principal For a Day, and they are looking for corporate execs to visit one of the 1,200 public schools citywide and interact with the students in a meaningful fashion. The letters go out to CEOs, and mine dumps his off to me.

I volunteer for Career Day and find myself north of 125th Street in Manhattan for maybe the third time in my life, standing in front of the offspring of an urban America I heretofore supported, cheered on, embraced rights for, donated to, prayed for, occasionally raged against, played the music of, rollerbladed with and advertised to … but now I'm in their community, with their children, and I'm supposed to make some kind of contribution to their understanding of an outside world they know only through television and their parents' complaints, so far.

I'm standing in front of a class full of black and Hispanic public-school sixth graders, and I'm armed with notes about the meaning of marketing, the role advertising plays in our culture and the opportunities these things hold for aspiring students.

I've got no chance.

Dominated by minorities—I've never seen more than three or four white kids in there—this school is the one opportunity many of these kids have to defy the odds, gain an education and find some kind of life inconceivable to their parents or whomever else it is at home. Many of them come from unimaginable situations at home; for some of them, it's a miracle they even get there most mornings. Al Pacino graduated from C.S. 50 a hundred years ago; it's no longer the school he went to.

And, you know, you play enough blues music, you get up to Sylvia's restaurant on Lenox Avenue and 126th Street in Harlem, you become a regular part of a rainbow family of Sunday rollerbladers in Central Park, and you figure you're prepared for just about any kind of multicultural encounter. And with 20 years of big-time advertising experience and a master's degree under your belt, you assume you can relate at least some of it to a bunch of sixth-grade kids.

Not so fast, white boy.

Each year, more than 900 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students are crammed into Clara Barton School, set down in the once-broken heart of the besieged South Bronx, now surrounded by newly constructed "affordable housing" and struggling businesses and bodegas emerging from the devastation and abuse. Some classes have to be held in cloakrooms, or the teachers' lounge, or even a restroom.

The first time I see 30 of these students staring right back at me, I know it's going to be the toughest audience I've ever had. Then I allow myself a closer look. These kids are … kids. Their eyes are like bright beacons of light, shining into the future. What I've learned through numerous volunteer visits in the 11 years since that first day is that by the time these kids reach the sixth grade at C.S. 50, they're still young enough to be full of life and hope and even some expectations and old enough to know it will be difficult from where they've started out.

It's the kind of environment that can create spectacular successes and heart-breaking failures and a lot of lost and forgotten cases in between.

But now, this time, my first-time visit on Career Day, I've got to justify my mere presence to these kids, and all I've got are my notes on marketing and advertising tucked into the inside coat pocket of my power lunch suit.

I suddenly feel Caucasian, very Caucasian.

"Class, this is Mr. Arnold."

Grins. Then giggles.

Which instantly reduces me another notch—to a balding white guy.

Turns out the only other Arnold they've ever seen or heard of is the cartoon character in Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold!—a streetwise fourth-grade city kid. It actually helps break the ice.

"Good morning, boys and girls."

"Good morning … Mr. Arnold!" More laughs.

"I'm one of a lot of professionals from around the city visiting schools today, just like yours, to talk about what I do at work, in my job. I work for an advertising agency, and … we help marketers sell their products. Anybody know what an ad agency is?"

Front-row hand shoots up: "Is it like where my mama goes to get food stamps?"

This is going to be even harder than I thought.

"Anybody else?"

Zip.

"OK, who knows what a marketer does?"

A reluctant hand, half-raised, from the back.

"A marketer like has a grocery store and sells groceries."

"Yes!" I say. I can work with that.

"So, my job is to help make it easier for the man in the grocery store to sell Kellogg's Corn Flakes to your mom. Kind of."

Another hand. "I don't like Corn Flakes."

And another. "How do you know my mama?"

I stuff my notes back in my pocket.

"OK, who knows what Skittles are?"

"Candy!" in unison.

"Right! And how many of you have seen a Skittles commercial on television?"

Everybody.

"OK. Well, the ad agency I work for makes those commercials. We work for the company that makes Skittles candy, and every year we have to come up with ideas for commercials to help them sell Skittles to kids like you. Does anybody remember something from the commercial?"

"Skittles!"

"Right. Anything else?"

"A rainbow."

"Exactly. Each commercial says, 'Taste the rainbow,' and shows a rainbow. Why do you think they show a rainbow?"

"Cause they say, 'Taste the rainbow.' "

And so it goes. For another 20 minutes, Mr. Arnold submits himself to this kind of simple wisdom and unbiased scrutiny from 30 charming, painfully honest and wonderfully naive kids, and somehow we manage to have ourselves a semi-Career Day.

Finally, I ask if anybody has any questions before I go. Soon enough, a hand.

"How much money do you make?"

This from some 12-year-old kid.

Here I stand in the presence of the C.S. 50 faculty, women and men who are shaping lives, saving lives, guiding young minds toward a path with possibilities, working to convince them, hope against hope, that if they apply themselves, if they open their minds to the possibilities and work very hard, they will get there. Somewhere. Some of them recognize that it's a chance. A few of them recognize that it's their only chance.

And it's all thanks to this dedicated staff.

How much do you make? I'm thinking the answer is an obscene amount more than these people who are genuinely contributing to the greater good. It makes no sense to me, this imbalance. All I can do at this point is be utterly grateful for what I do for a living and the rewards it brings—and hope the less tangible returns these educators earn become greater rewards someday.

Be grateful, plus give a little something back. A reasonable combination.

The entire staff at Clara Barton School, led for the past 13 years by principal James V. Parker, who finally retired this year after three decades in the public-school system, is tirelessly devoted to these children. They have to be: Each one is called on to be a teacher, counselor, foster parent, big brother and sister, disciplinarian and otherwise ray of light for these students. Every minute of every day, nonstop.

Their passion for what they do stands as an example for the rest of us. And certainly for me. So I've taken the subway up to C.S. 50 three or four days a year, every year, for the past 11 years. I visit classrooms, make the morning announcements over an antiquated PA, take on lunch-room duty and generally pay my respects to these miracle workers and their charges. For the past several years I've been a keynote speaker at sixth-grade commencement, and my message is simple: School is cool, and get as much of it as possible, 'cause your education is one of those things nobody can take away from you. That and the self-respect you'll get along with it.

These commencements, finally, are celebrations. These kids have triumphed, more or less, perhaps for the first time, hopefully not for the last. I stand up there on the auditorium stage and shake each one of their outstretched hands as they come through graduation in their caps and gowns. They are radiant. They are beautiful. They have emerged from C.S. 50, Clara Barton School in the South Bronx, and here they come.