Tom Matlack talks to Rev. John Finley from Epiphany School, a middle school for economically disadvantaged students.
Julio Medina, James Houghton, and I recently addressed the student body of Epiphany School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Afterward, we met with the school’s boys, all of whom had read The Good Men Project: Real Stories From the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. I recently returned to interview the founder of the school, Rev. John Finley IV.
Epiphany is an independent, tuition-free middle school for children of economically disadvantaged families from Boston neighborhoods. They admit children of diverse faiths, races, cultures, and cognitive profiles, believing in the Episcopal tradition that we find God in and through each other.
MATLACK: The first thing I noticed when I walked in the building is that five kids walked up to me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and introduced themselves. I’m curious, why is that?
FINLEY: Well, a couple of reasons. One, we practice every morning, as part of the school culture. It’s a way for me to interact with a kid, to say, “Hi, how are you?” We have a human interaction, and it establishes what we’re about. The second reason is that I really want the kids to feel empowered in terms of their role at the school. Whether someone is here to fix the HVAC system or it’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, I want the kids to go up and say “hello.”
MATLACK: When I was here, there was a group that were foster kids—
FINLEY: Yes. Twenty percent of the kids are kids who, because of abuse or neglect, are in the care of the Department of Children and Families. They may be living in foster homes, they may be living in group homes, but they’re all involved with a social worker because they’ve been abused or neglected by their biological families.
MATLACK: You were also talking about the graduation rate from college, of kids in the neighborhood compared to kids who are here.
FINLEY: The statistic I use is a two to three percent number. That is the national average for economically disadvantaged kids of color. Our population is—with one or two exceptions—all kids of color and all economically disadvantaged.
FINLEY: Exactly. Compare that to the school here, where a good chunk of kids graduate college on time, and there are others who are working, or took a two-year program, or joined the military.
But it also helps us to learn about the kids who don’t do well. We have kids who’ve gone to jail. We have kids who have gotten pregnant. We have kids who are unemployed. We can look at them and try to learn what brought that about, learn how could we change our program.
MATLACK: So the role of families—at your school, the families all have to work. Tell me about that.
FINLEY: The families have to work about two hours a week at the school. We try to work with our families to move everybody out of poverty by the time they graduate, even though we’re not really able to do that with everybody. We want parents to get into this habit of going to school every week; to understand that is part of what it means to be a parent. Hopefully, when they go to high school, they will be the parents who come to the parent meetings, who are involved, who meet their kids’ advisors and so forth.
We know from experience that if the family really isn’t on board, it will be harder for the kid in high school. They’ll derail what’s being taught to them, they won’t participate in what they need to participate in, and it will undercut the kid’s performance.
MATLACK: Let’s talk about boys. I asked one teacher to tell me how many of the boys had fathers who were in their lives.
FINLEY: None, right?
MATLACK: Yeah. Tell me how you try to compensate.
FINLEY: It’s very sad. You’ll see boys who are desperate for a male role model. They’ll come up to talk to me, and I’m like, OK, I’m white, I’m gay, I’m from an affluent background—this is like the duckling following the tiger, but I’ll do my best.
MATLACK: How much do you think is academic training, and how much is compensating for that family dynamic in what you do at the school?
FINLEY: The bulk of what we do is academic, but education gives you the tools to handle those problems. In other words, you may be learning science, but you’re becoming a more articulate, educated person, and it’s giving you the skills so that you can opt into a different social environment. It’s about creating the kind of independence that helps give kids the ability to break that cycle of poverty.
MATLACK: What about this idea that being smart is not cool?
FINLEY: That’s something you have to counter. I see it when kids say, “Well, I want to go to this high school,” and their sister or their cousin says, “You don’t need to go to a place like that. You don’t need to work that hard.”
We try and do a lot to support male role models in the school. One of the things we have is a couple of basketball leagues. It’s former students of mine from my first school, graduates from this school, and a couple of faculty members. The boys here just press up against the glass. All they want to do is see those guys. There’s a huge energy.
MATLACK: Because those boys have made it.
FINLEY: Those boys have made it, they’re cool, they’re strong, they’re smart.
MATLACK: They’re not in jail.
FINLEY: They’re not in jail. And the kids want to be that person.
MATLACK: I want to talk about the kids reading our book. We’ve worked with other schools where the book has resonated, but I’ve never had a response as strong as here. Why?
FINLEY: I couldn’t tell you, but you’re right, they love it. Maybe it’s because the teachers really took to it. When they said, “We’re going to do a two-hour boys’ book group,” I was like, “What?” But they loved it.
MATLACK: And they say men don’t read. (Laughter.)
FINLEY: Exactly. Part of it is the role modeling.
MATLACK: What was the response to Julio?
FINLEY: Julio reinforced everything we’re trying to do here, and he has a credibility that I don’t have. It’s great to see someone of color, from the same background as the kids, step up. And the fact that in his book, it’s very clear that jail is not a cool place. Julio has had to deal with things in a way that I haven’t, maybe. I’ve been able to put my demons more in a box and haven’t had to unpack them as much.
MATLACK: The experience of many of the guys in the book—of actually turning around and facing your demon and seeing that it’s a shadow—it’s so liberating. I think in a way that’s what the book is about. It’s about redemption at the deepest level for men, which we need more of. That’s the whole point—most men do pack it away. Most normal, rich, white guys pack it away. On top of that, a kid of color who is in poverty, whose role models are in jail—how is he ever going to have a chance?
FINLEY: Right. The world’s all on his back.
MATLACK: What inspires you? What calls you to do this work?
FINLEY: I feel needed here, and I feel useful. I feel like this is a place where they need me, they need my gifts, and I can bring them. My faith is a really big part of it. It very much seemed to me that this is what God is calling me to do.
My kids are inspirational, they’re great. And being around them makes me a better person. It goes with answering the call, but I feel like I’m closer to God through doing this work. And if my life is about trying to get in closer communion with God, then that’s what this is about.
MATLACK: How has romantic love shaped you as a man?
FINLEY: A lot. Having sex with the same person over and over and over again, in some ways, it’s not, certainly, the best sex I’ve ever had in my life, but in many ways it is, because it’s very intimate and deep and more profound in many ways.
MATLACK: What two words describe your dad?
FINLEY: I’m going to do more than two words, I’m sorry. But my dad is generous, honest, kind, principled, direct—but he’s an asshole. He is a paragon of all that is best in a man, and yet a complete jerk at the same time.
MATLACK: How are you different from him?
FINLEY: How am I different from him? I’m gay. (Laughter.) But I am much more eager to please than he is. I’m much more aware of my sensitivity, I have a much more interior life than he does. He is sensitive, but he’s not even perceiving it. He spends half his day screaming, yelling about things.
MATLACK: From what mistake of yours did you learn the most?
FINLEY: My mistake of anger, which comes from a feeling of guilt, which comes from a feeling of being in control. What I’ve learned is I’m not as in control as I thought I was. If I try to control it, I’m only going to make it worse, because if I try to impose control by yelling and screaming and losing my temper, I just create more problems.
MATLACK: What word—this is actually more funny with straight guys—but what word would women in your life use to describe you?
FINLEY: I have good relationships with women, so they probably say nice things, I don’t know. He’s nice, he’s loyal, he’s a good listener, that kind of thing.
MATLACK: Who’s a really good dad in your life, and what makes them so?
FINLEY: My father is a really good dad. And what makes him that way is that he loves me completely. He is always honest with me. He is generous with me, but fair. He kicks me in the butt when I need it. He respects me. He enjoys my company, likes to be with me, he has fun with me, and I have fun with him. He trusts me completely, and he loves me.
FINLEY: I feel like I’ve really hit the long ball at both arenas. But as my husband says to me, “You’re the asshole who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple”—in the sense that my public life has been very successful, but I had a lot of advantages going into it.
And my private life, same thing. I had a really strong family. I mean, there are problems, but when I compare it to what I see my kids going through or my students going through, it’s nothing.
MATLACK: What’s your favorite guy ritual?
FINLEY: I think my favorite guy ritual is probably weeding the garden with my dad, shoveling manure and things like that. No one else in the family really likes to do it, so it’s our time. It’s a great way for us to talk, because you don’t have to really talk that much. In other words, you might say something and it just kind of floats out there, and he responds or he doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to be an answer. And so it can just kind of let it float out there.
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In September, 2009, Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.