Hope arrives in the mail
Allen Taylor. Mr. Taylor. Coach Taylor.
His own life had mirrored almost every step of Shakoor’s, only about two decades before.
He and Shakoor Henderson landed in Williamsport for the same reason: recovery.
Allen Taylor was born in Wilmington, but moved to Williamsport with his mom as she struggled with addiction. It was an uneven road, and there were times — as early as middle school — when he essentially lived by himself and took himself to school while his mom cycled through recovery and incarceration.
Like Shakoor, Taylor was a star athlete, playing basketball at Williamsport Area High School during the program’s heyday in the late 1980s. But success on the court and in the classroom didn’t shield him from the streets. Seeking companionship and fast money, he became a small-time drug dealer in his teens
After nearly winding up in prison, Taylor ditched dealing and headed to college — eventually becoming a math teacher at Williamsport Area High School and head coach of the men’s basketball team. He is still, today, one of four Black male teachers in a school district with over 300 educators.
He was the first Black male teacher Shakoor remembers having in school. But their connection went beyond race and gender.
“He was headed down the same road I was,” Taylor said. “And my concern was, ‘Look, man, you’re gonna continue to do X, Y, and Z. And at some point, you’re gonna pay a price. And it’s gonna be a heavy price.’”
He also knew Shakoor through Williamsport’s recovery community. His mom was friends with Shakoor’s parents, and he’d come over to the Henderson house regularly to play chess with Tony on their porch.
While in school, Taylor would pull Shakoor aside for little chats — sometimes dropping cryptic warnings.
“He’d be like, ‘Man, you don’t really want this,” Shakoor said. “He’s a very calculated person. He’s a chess player. Always two or three steps ahead.”
Shakoor listened with reverence, but the message faded when he was beyond Taylor’s gaze. After the fight that ultimately led to his time in juvenile detention, Shakoor remembers his disappointment and his head-shaking line:
“You just couldn’t help yourself.”
By the time he was at Abraxas, Shakoor figured the relationship was strained beyond the point of communication. He never expected a letter back.
But Taylor knew what Williamsport was like for a young black kid and a child of recovery. He knew where Shakoor had come from. He knew where Shakoor was going.
“Words do matter,” Taylor said. “Had I told the young man you ain’t … and you’ll never be … that’s what that kid’s gonna believe. I’m just thankful that’s not what I did.”
The letter itself is lost to time, swept away during some spring cleaning after Shakoor left Williamsport. But the content mattered less than the fact that Allen Taylor wrote it.
“It gave me that [feeling], there is life after this,” said Shakoor. “I can still go back, and I can change some things.”
Fighting to ‘change my narrative’
The letter gave him hope, but it was not some pixie-dust inflection point.
Nor was his time in juvenile detention. Years later, Shakoor still wrestles with how to judge that time in his life.
“It didn’t turn me into an amazing leader, you know, and I will never give them that credit because they’ve done more harm than good. I always stand by that,” Shakoor said. “That being said, they did change my perspective on things, and it was mostly because of the craziness. I’m like, I never want to be in this position where somebody is controlling me.”
Shakoor returned to Williamsport to finish high school and was eventually accepted to Clarion University, a state school in western Pennsylvania.
“I knew I had to change my narrative. And for me, changing my narrative was going to college,” he said. “You can’t call me this ‘jail kid’ or this ‘street kid’ or anything like that if I’m in college.”
Shakoor, though, was pulled between those competing visions of himself for years. And college was yet another whirlwind, spanning seven years, four schools, and several life-altering pivots.
He left Clarion after one semester and transferred to Lock Haven University near Williamsport. It proved too close to home and too close to trouble.
In 2012, about a year after Shakoor graduated high school, authorities accused him and his older brother of several felonies tied to a robbery. Prosecutors offered a plea deal that, by Shakoor’s recollection, would have given him a prison term of 10 to 20 years.
Shakoor and his brother insisted they had nothing to do with the robbery, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.
After a key witness recanted, Shakoor said, authorities countered with a plea deal for six months. At the time, Shakoor’s brother was already in prison because he’d been on probation. With time served, he could take the deal and come home. Shakoor pleaded with him to continue the fight.
“Because if you admit to it, that means I did it, too. And we didn’t do it,” Shakoor remembered telling his brother.
Again, Shakoor’s fate — his freedom — sat in the hands of a family member. This time, he won the argument. His brother rejected the deal, and authorities eventually dropped the charges.
Before the 2013 spring semester, Shakoor transferred from Lock Haven University to another state school farther away, Bloomsburg University. It was another bid to clear himself from the hang-ups of his hometown.
His hometown had other ideas.
On the evening of Jan. 9, Shakoor called his cousin, Terrell, at 5 p.m. They were supposed to meet up with friends — not unusual since they’d grown up together, almost like brothers. In a few weeks, they were supposed to head to Bloomsburg together.
But it was unusual when Terrell didn’t pick up.
At 5:29, Shakoor’s brother called, frantic.
They shot ’Rell. They shot ’Rell.
Two men had executed Terrell in a Williamsport alley during a botched drug deal.
Shakoor already felt his life careening. He’d just turned 20. He was less than three years removed from juvenile detention, and just months removed from allegations that could have sent him to prison.
After Terrell’s death — as Shakoor was about to attend his third college in less than two years — the chaos reached a crescendo.
“The environment I was in at the time was so dangerous, man,” Shakoor recalled. “I went to the funeral with a gun, right, because somebody might try something while I was there. That’s the mindset I was in.”
History seemed to be repeating itself. The cycle his parents were trying to break — drugs, violence, tragedy — was turning in on him. And there seemed to be no escape.
At that point, Shakoor couldn’t think about higher education. But his dad wanted him to leave Williamsport, fearing something else would happen. So Shakoor muddled through and headed to Bloomsburg. He pulled up that semester in front of his dorm with a trash bag full of clothes and a handgun.
“In no way was I thinking about school,” Shakoor said.
His grades were a disaster. He drank. He partied. He describes it as self-medication. Academic troubles forced him to a fourth school, Lincoln University in Chester County. He was quickly expelled for having a gun on campus against school rules.
Amid the academic false starts, he fell back into dealing, and that positive vision of his life started to dim.
The chances of Shakoor graduating college — much less becoming a teacher — seemed slim. He hoped only to slow down, go back to Williamsport, avoid street life, and get a day job.
He found one as a technician at a rehab center, the same one where his dad and Allen Taylor’s mom had once been patients.
Shakoor liked the job, but the pay wasn’t great. After one especially disappointing paycheck, he started complaining to an older coworker who had no time for a young man’s complaints.
“If you don’t like this, shut up,” the nurse told him. “Go back to school.”
She sounded a little like the impatient girl on the slide. Just go down already. Just do the thing. Shakoor had gotten that message before from a lot of well-meaning people. But somehow, this time, it stuck.
Whether by divine intervention or pure coincidence, Shakoor said it was this nurse at his dad’s old rehab center that convinced him to give school a final try.
“I just got to walk out on faith and trust myself and just trust that I got this,” Shakoor said.
This time, he did.
He returned to Bloomsburg and in spring 2018 graduated with a dual degree in history and philosophy.
‘The system’s against me’
Why detail the low points of a young man’s life many years before he became a teacher?
Shakoor will tell you that his history is intertwined with what makes him better at teaching the children at his majority Black school in North Philadelphia.
“You can sympathize with those kids, but you can’t empathize with them,” he said to a white reporter. “I can empathize with them and sympathize. It’s a different experience being Black in America. Period. It is.”
Though the details of Shakoor’s life are unique to him, they echo what many Black men in this country experience. And they shed light on why so few Black men are even eligible to teach.
For instance, if Shakoor Henderson had been convicted of the felony robbery that he was accused of at age 19, he would not be a teacher in Pennsylvania right now. One-third of African American men have a felony conviction, according to research from the University of Georgia.
If the shooting death of Shakoor’s cousin had permanently derailed his college dreams, he would not be a teacher in Pennsylvania right now. A survey from Pew found that 57% of Black Americans know someone who has been shot, easily the highest rate among any racial subgroup.
If Shakoor’s time in juvenile detention had led to a life of recidivism, he would not be a teacher in Pennsylvania right now. Government data shows that Black people released from prison are the most likely to be rearrested within nine years.
Shakoor made bad decisions in his life. For years, he ignored advice and guidance from his family and teachers — people who repeatedly rallied around him. You cannot tell this story and take away his agency. He wouldn’t want it that way.
But if you want to know why Black males make up just 2% of the teaching force in this country, this data is impossible to ignore: A teacher must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Just 14% of Black men in this country have that credential. That’s less than half the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Add it all up, and the odds are against the existence of Black male teachers.
“There are multiple exit ramps — and not a lot of on-ramps,” said Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, which aims to increase the number of Black teachers.
For many like Shakoor, that reality becomes too much to overcome.
“My cousin being killed, going into depression, all of those things packed into me, not caring and getting back into the streets and doing dumb stuff,” said Shakoor. “It’ll make you be like, ‘Man, forget this. The system’s against me, whatever, and forget it.’”