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.”