Wyatt Cenac Goes Back to School

BY BRADFORD DAVIS

To solve his original problem area, the comic goes back where it all started.

By his own admission, Wyatt Cenac was never a great student. But, at least he never got a C in high school.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. His parents never knew he got a C. (“There was a whooping if you got one,” said the comedian and host of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.) When he did earn a C, he surreptitiously used his stepfather’s computer to forge a better grade for his report card. While he might have been trying to avoid a beating, his slick act of deceit also belied a growing pessimism with the educational system, Cenac explained to a small group of activists, reporters and educators crowded in a fourth floor Harlem classroom.

“What the f--k is my education for,” Cenac asked his audience at P.S./M.S. 149, “if I'm more concerned about the wrath and punishment I'd field for getting a C than what I'm actually retaining and what type of person I'm becoming?” While preparing for Problem Areas’ second season — which focuses its blend of comedy and service journalism on examining American public education — frustrating memories about his childhood education resurfaced. He wanted to rewrite his own story.

Cenac’s thorough excavation of public education’s varied deficiencies reminded him of his Texas private school. The comedian recalls asking his guidance counselor to help him (legitimately) boost his unremarkable grades. That counselor glanced at his transcript and told him, “Hey, you're the smartest of all the Black kids.”

Now, decades removed, Cenac believes that the institutional apathy he encountered stalled the course of his life. “What if I were engaged a different way in school? I think I would be on this same path doing television,” he wondered aloud. “But maybe I’d be making season 12, instead of season two.”

Weeks later, at Manhattan’s Soho House, Cenac hosted a panel of education advocates working to see American children engaged differently. Based in New York City’s Meatpacking District, the hotel and club (members pay upwards of $2,000 a year for access to the building’s amenities) had little in common with a Harlem school that serves free lunch to most of its students. The panel kept the same energy that Cenac served uptown.

Speaking as the Legislative Director for the Alliance for Quality Education, Jasmine Gripper cited racial disparities in school disciplinary application, urging the attendees to support legal remedies that protect students. New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones found the silver lining in Gripper’s plea, noting that the crowd was full of “people legislators actually listen to.” Though she also noted, slyly, “they would never send their kids to public school,” thus avoiding the punitive conditions Black and brown children suffer under across the country.

One panelist particularly embodied the ideal educator Cenac longed for. Allison Farmer drew from her experience leading a Brooklyn high school populated by kids expelled from their former classrooms, telling the crowd that “When it comes to my young people, I want them to feel loved inside of schools.” Farmer added, “If a young person can come to me and say ‘I’m hungry,’ not only does that show them they feel safe, it means they’ll be willing to take academic risks.”