Ann Arborite Grant Grimard
"Man, it was hard," says Grant Grimard, nineteen. The former Pioneer High basketball captain broke with the pack after graduation in 2011: Instead of college, he joined the nonprofit City Year program, where he worked with middle schoolers in the poverty-plagued South Bronx. Getting up at 6 to catch his subway train, he worked 12-hour days, tutoring math and running after-school sports programs for kids whose trust he fought to win. Friends partying away their freshman year texted him, "Why aren't you in college?"
Sometimes Grimard asked himself that. The youngest hire in his school's team group of 18- to 24-year-olds, Grimard felt "too shy to talk" at early meetings--a change for a popular kid. "It was definitely different, and there were some lonely times," says Grimard, who returned to Ann Arbor last fall. But, he adds, "it's the best thing I've ever done."
And his year in the Bronx led him to take flight--literally. The school where he worked was under an approach path to LaGuardia airport in Queens. While most people found the constant buzz of air traffic a nuisance, it thrilled Grimard--and inspired him to pursue a career as an aviator.
Grimard is about six feet, with light brown hair, a well-scrubbed look, and an easy smile. As basketball captain in his senior year, he enjoyed the status but insists, "I wasn't like the coolest guy in the world," despite his "awesome prom date." He says he interviewed for City Year partly because "my math mind is very logical," and he hated committing to the time and expense of college without a career goal.
He learned about the program from a New York friend of his dad's. A couple of telephone interviews, and he was hired into the competitive nationwide program that pays young people poverty wages to work in troubled schools. The only child of divorced parents, Grimard, who lives here with his father (his mother lives in Arizona), liked the idea of "being a role
model for young guys who didn't have a father."
At the school, he worked one-to-one with several kids. Edgar, twelve, was his biggest challenge. Raised solely by his mom, Edgar was in danger of failing all his classes--and didn't seem to much care. Early on, in frustration, Grimard sometimes walked away after talking to him. "Then I realized that other people had walked away from him," he says. Grimard eventually interested Edgar enough to seek him out for extra tutoring. And when the school year ended, the boy called him at home to share good news: "Mr. G, I passed and I made it to eighth grade."
"That was awesome, man," Grimard says, his voice rising with excitement. "He passed the seventh grade! Just that call was worth [the entire year]."
Grimard also contended with race and class issues within his team. Most of the nine members were black or Latino. Some grew up in poverty--and doubted his ability to teach students whose lives were so different from his own. "There was some judgement that 'he's not going to be able to work with the kids,'" he recalls. Although the team eventually coalesced, emotions sometimes boiled high, with one black volunteer angrily accusing a white leader of racism. Grimard himself was the reluctant star of a brief soap opera when the same volunteer made it clear she was romantically interested in him, a sentiment he didn't reciprocate. "She was pursuing me and it got really weird. She ended up resigning."
His City Year pay, about $1,100 a month, just covered the rent on his one-bedroom apartment. Grimard praises his dad for helping with meals and movie money. His father, Dennis Grimard, a scientist who runs a large research facility on North Campus, says he wanted his son to experience a big city, but recalls, "When I dropped him off in the middle of the Bronx, I was worried and nervous."
Grant learned street smarts pretty quick: "The biggest thing is not to fall asleep in the subway at night," he says. And he's proud that "I know the New York subway system like the back of my hand." An unexpected bonus was a City Year benefactor who arranged for him to interview a corporate pilot--in the cockpit of his jet. "While walking through the plane, I couldn't help but notice how right it felt," he blogged.
Back in Ann Arbor, Grimard, who received his private pilot's license last fall, wipes down planes and answers phones at the Ann Arbor �xADAirport--and sinks some of his paycheck into renting planes by the hour. Comfortable enough to take guests in the air, he laughs as he recalls his dad's initial nervousness. "He drank coffee before we went up! He never drinks coffee."
Having learned that airlines like �xADcollege-educated pilots, Grimard plans to start at WCC in the fall. And along with his inspiration to fly, he says he left New York determined to stay involved somehow in America's struggling schools.
His dad believes that City Year strengthened his son's talent for leadership, something he sensed Grant possessed early on. "Anyone can be a pigeon," he recalls telling his son in seventh grade. "I want you to be an eagle."
Dennis was moved by Grant's answer: "He said to me, 'Can't an eagle and a pigeon be friends?' That's Grant."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]