Staples High School graduation is Friday. As they receive their diplomas, 463 seniors will earn well-deserved applause and whistles.
None should be cheered louder than Malik Brantley.
His story begins in Georgia. His father disappeared when Malik was 2, and his sister Claudine was 1.
His mother, Monique, married a man named Lavert. Malik called him “Dad.” But the couple divorced when Malik was 12.
Monique took her kids to Norwich, Connecticut, where she had an aunt. She got a job as a home health aide.
The next year, they moved to nearby Montville. Malik played middle school football — he was fast and good. The day he scored his 1st touchdown, he looked jubilantly into the stands. Lavert had promised he’d be at the game.
He wasn’t there.
“I shut down for a while,” Malik recalls. “Most kids had dads who taught them football. Everyone always asked where my dad was.”
Monique trained him to run faster. “She pushed me,” he says. “I hated her for that. But she’s tough. She took on both roles: mother and father.”
Moving again, Malik entered Norwich Free Academy (the city’s public high school). “All I cared about was football, hanging out and girls,” he says. Around that time, a drug dealer in his building was killed.
“I smoked a lot of weed,” Malik says. His friends sold drugs. But Malik soon pulled away from that group.
An assistant principal at NFA was like a father figure. Yet the atmosphere was not encouraging. A guidance counselor told Malik he could go to community college, at best.
Malik got a job at Foxwoods’ bingo hall. Sometimes he worked double shifts. He gave most of his money to his mother. But he also bought sneakers and clothes. He wanted to look as good as the other kids.
In the middle of sophomore year, Malik’s mother took him to Greenwich Village. He always had a way with words. She’d arranged for him to meet with the director of a comedy club. He took classes, learned stand-up, and performed. The crowd loved him.
He also joined the NFA track team. When he ran, he thought of his paternal grandfather. He’d met him for the 1st time a few months earlier, and been inspired by him. Eight months after Malik met him, though, he died.
Midway through junior year, Monique’s name finally came up for housing — in Westport’s Hales Court. It was financially difficult, but she was determined that her children go to the best school possible. The family moved from a 2-bedroom apartment to a 3-bedroom house. “It’s really nice,” Malik says.
Yet Westport was a culture shock. On his 1st day at Staples, Malik walked into the cafeteria. He saw a sea of white faces — and walked right back out.
For 2 or 3 months, he felt uncomfortable. But, thanks to members of the track team — particularly star distance runner Henry Wynne — Malik found a spot for himself.
Coach Laddie Lawrence provided constant encouragement. So did guidance counselor Deb Slocum. When Malik repeated what his NFA counselor told him — that all he could hope for was community college — she shook her head. She told him he could go to a 4-year school. And she followed up often, pushing him with a combination of toughness and tenderness.
When he handed in his research paper, English teacher Susan O’Hara gave it a “B.” Malik was content. O’Hara was not. She told him she knew he could rewrite it. He did — and got an “A.”
“Staples is the same size as NFA,” Malik says. “But the support system here is so much stronger. Mr. (John) Dodig (principal), Laddie, all my teachers — I can’t thank them enough. They were all there for me.”
Earlier this year, Malik got in some trouble. Assistant principal Pat Micinilio said, “I still respect you as a young man.” Malik was surprised — but soon realized the administrator truly meant it.
“I like getting up in the morning and going to school,” Malik adds. “I’ve found my place socially. I’m friends with a lot of different types of people.” Last week, he finished his senior internship at Green’s Farms Elementary School.
Malik says, “Staples changed my life. I honestly believe if I was back in Norwich I would’ve kept smoking weed, working 9 to 5, hanging out, or even worse, got into dealing.”
Instead, he’s headed to Monroe College. He’ll study culinary arts and physical education. He’s a recruited track athlete.
And — because he received the Laddie Lawrence Scholarship, Staples Tuition Grants and other awards — he does not have to worry about student loans.
“I’m poor,” Malik says. “I’ve worked hard for these” — he points to his Nike sneakers. “I keep them clean. I can’t go out and get another pair just like that.”
But — despite his preconceptions — he does not find Westporters stuck up.
“It’s not a rich, snobby town. Yes, there is money here, and big heads. But lots of people are willing to help.”
As one of very few black males at Staples, he felt intimidated at first. But, Malik says, “In Norwich I had to be tough. Here I didn’t have to show that side.”
Instead, he turned a 1.0 GPA into a 3.4. He made countless friends and memories. He shakes his head. “When I look back at what I used to be, that’s just crazy.”
Malik smiles broadly. “Given the chance, I’d be so happy to come back to teach and coach here. I feel I owe something to Staples. It’s given me everything.
“I love this school and town.”
Same story with one of the guys who works for me. His son got to go to Weston schools and he made friends and excelled. His siblings had to go to Bridgeport schools. What a difference.
Malik’s sister Claudine found her way to the Westport Library as soon as they relocated here and applied for a position. She credits her mother with making sure the public library is always a part of their lives.
Congratulations Malik! Your story is amazing and I know you will go far. Dan, thanks for sharing the bright side of Westport.
Dan, what a great inspirational story. Malik, way to go! Keep up the great work.
Way to go Malik! According to our son, Malik has given as much to that incredible track team as he has received.
Like Malik, our Open Choice students who just live over the border in Bridgeport, have families with that same dedication to education and determination to overcome their obstacles in attaining it. Perhaps in the Fall you could profile some of them, Dan.
In the meantime, Malik, hope you’ll do your first stand up concert at the Levitt!
Great story, Dan. Tales like this remind me of my Staples ’66 football teammate Charles Joyner, who recently retired after a distinguished career as a professor of art at North Carolina State University. I was too socially unaware at the time to realize how disconcerting it must have been for students like Charly to go to oh-so-white Staples.
Congratulations Malik and best wishes on a successful college career and life! Congrats to the Staples teachers and coaches for encouraging this young man. And big thanks to Dan for sharing the story!
Great story. Glad to see Deb Slocum and Laddie Lawrence continuing their wonderful work in helping our young people be the best they can be.
Congratulations to Mailk! Monore College will be lucky to have you! Your story is so very inspiring. Donors to Staples Tuition Grants – thank you! Your gifts make a grant from STG possible for Malik and so many others!
Great job — as always — Dan. Hoping Malik’s next four years — and beyond — turn out like his Staples experience.
“I love this school and town.” – Great story!!
Love to read stories like this. Congratulations Malik! Great to see people making a positive difference in someone’s life!!
Darn you, Dan Woog, for making me cry when I have so much to get done this morning! Beautiful story, and reminds me why (despite the bulldozers on my street right now) I love this town and the people who live here. Congratulations to Malik, the Westport Public Schools, and Staples Tuition Grants (those volunteers work so hard!). But most of all, congratulations to Monique. You should be very proud of all you have accomplished. I’m in awe.
Congratulations, Malik !!! You’re on your way.
And thanks Maxine for the update on Claudine. I wondered.
And … wonderful job Monique. You must be very proud of both of your kids.
FANTASTIC STORY!! Congrats to Malik on his hard work….So many people choose the easy road…he could have very easily have done that here is Westport too. His Mom must be SOOOO PROUD!!!! kudos to the whole family…what an inspiration!
Great story Dan. Had the pleasure of working with Malik on some of his comedy videos. He is everything you have described him as being. Best of luck to another terrific Staples student!
Awesome. Love to meet this young man.
Sent from my iPhone
Dan, don’t know if you remember me but my years working at Staples, may have been the best of my career…this story epitomizes the very best of Westport..as I recall you always set the very best example for helping kids through some really tough years..!!
Malik, you are an inspiration to everyone because you never gave up. I will send this wonderful article to all the Oen Choice families I work with to share your story of resilience and determination. Yes, you landed in a perfect place. But you gave more than you received. That is a magic formula to learn so early in life. Well done. And thanks Dan for sharing Malik’s story.
Malik, I am SO proud of you. I will be cheering for you at today’s graduation. We believe in you!!