Tag Archives: Susan O’Hara

Malik Brantley: “This Place Has Given Me Everything”

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.

Malik Brantley a few days before graduation, in front of the Staples track trophy case.

Malik Brantley a few days before graduation, in front of the Staples track trophy case.

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.”

Malik Brantley.

Malik Brantley.

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.

Malik Brantley, Staples track star.

Malik Brantley, Staples track star.

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.”

Malik Brantley in culinary class.

Malik Brantley in culinary class.

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.”

Malik Brantley, surrounded by Staples friends.

Malik Brantley, surrounded by Staples friends.

Susan O’Hara’s “Strokes Of Genius”

Reports of the death of Westport as an artists’ colony are greatly exaggerated.

Over 1500 paintings, photos and etchings comprise the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. They hang in every school, Town Hall, the library — even the fire station.

Until now, though, all they’ve done is hang.

Since February, 2 sophomore Honors English classes have given life and meaning to nearly 4 dozen pieces. They’ve culled their favorites, researched the art and artists, learned how galleries work, written in-depth analyses — even recorded audio commentary, downloadable with smartphone apps.

The result is a remarkable show that sprawls through 3 Staples High School floors. It’s a superb example of kids making connections between many disciplines. And of teenagers understanding the rich history of the art they never realized surrounded them all around town.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O'Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O’Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

Susan O’Hara — who teaches the 2 classes that dove into this project — wanted her students to realize the importance of writing about and for their community.

Their work was intense. They explored over 400 works of art in the Permanent Collection. They visited the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art. They met with museum educators.

They organized their final 47 selections into 11 thematic groups. Before writing they interviewed artists, researched scenes they recognized, delved into town history, uncovered documentaries made about local artists, even interviewed art teachers to learn about techniques.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs -- 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs — 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Some artists’ names were vaguely familiar to students when they started. Others were completely unknown. Now they are intimate parts of the teens’ lives: Lynsey Addario, Ward Brackett, Miggs Burroughs, Burt Chernow, Ann Chernow, Stevan Dohanos, Leonard Everett Fisher, Isabel Gordon, Robert Lambdin, Howard Munce, Katherine Ross, Tracy Sugarman, Al Willmott, Lucia Nebel White.

Yesterday, many of those artists attended an opening reception for “Strokes of Genius.” They toured the halls, and admired the walls.

They peered in to read what the students had written. Monique Medina, for example, noted that Dohanos’ downtown scene was called “Crisis on Main Street” not only because a little girl’s ice cream cone was dripping; more ominously, World War II loomed.

Amy Perelberg described Willmott’s drawing of the Compo Beach playground as conveying not just the relaxing, light spirit of the shore, but also representing colors that make our entire town brighter.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith -- daughter of the "Little Toot" artist -- admire Al Willmott's Compo Beach playground painting.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith — daughter of the “Little Toot” artist — admire Al Willmott’s Compo Beach playground painting.

In our security-conscious world, Westporters can’t just stroll into Staples to see this great show. However, in October — as part of the 20th anniversary of the Westport Art Awards — the public can tour it.

An online version is being developed, so the project will live on once the show closes in December.

Just as — thanks in part to Susan O’Hara and her multi-dimensional sophomore students — Westport’s arts heritage continues to live.

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone's QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos' "Crisis on Main Street."

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone’s QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos’ “Crisis on Main Street.”