De La Salle, more than any one institution, was pivotal in shaping who Shannon McPherson is today. As a fifth grader I was the smartest in my class and most reserved, if you can imagine that compared to how I am now. But I learned to navigate that environment so that I could survive day to day. Ever since I was young, I had a plan for my life and I knew exactly how it would unfold. I was going to finish out my career at PS89 in the Bronx, go on to Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and against the odds head on to Harvard where I would go into a career helping people, most likely as a pediatrician. Little did I know that God had other plans for this young lady.
Understand De La Salle Academy (DLSA) was the first good thing in awhile because I applied after 9/11. I was chosen to apply and take the entrance exam for a school I had never heard of, in Manhattan, that was for gifted children. My fifth grade teacher told me that it would be better for me than where I currently was, that there was nothing more they could do for me there. To put it in perspective, I was the teacher’s pet, but also friends with students that fought with teachers frequently. I knew that to survive in that environment, I had to be tough because smart got you beat up. So there I was, presented with this opportunity that I was unsure of, and I took a leap of faith. I didn’t know what to expect.
I filled out the application, took the entrance exam and went about my life. Later, I was invited to a simulated school day and the only thing I remember from that day was getting my picture taken by an older gentleman, Brother Brian. I don’t remember much else from the process, but I do remember when I got my acceptance letter, and I was so excited that I could go to this new school, granted it didn’t occur to me that I would be leaving my friends behind.
But in all honesty De La Salle chose me. I had no expectations, like I mentioned, and no idea the growth that was in store for me. Though my personality today can be over the top, back then I was so unsure of myself. I was not the easiest in new environments, especially where I didn’t know anyone. My self-image outside of academics was basically non-existent.
I was fairly self-reliant as a child and figured out travelling by myself and getting to school with ease. What I had to learn rather quickly was who I wanted to surround myself with. I had to learn to be vulnerable, because as happy as I was, I was guarded. I commuted from the Bronx to 96th street by myself for the most part and kept my subway face with me, as Brother Brian pointed out to me on one occasion. I have more memories than I can count, but this conversation I had with Brother Brian, or rather he had at me, always comes to mind.
I can go back to that exact moment in time. There was an incident with some students, myself included, roughhousing in the stairwell which resulted in me being called into Brother Brian’s office for a one-on-one disciplinary conversation.
He took me to his office; the only time I had ever been disciplined at school for any reason. There he gave me the most heartfelt, honest, and needed lecture I had ever received. He told me what he observed in my character over the time I was at De La Salle. It was the first time I was referred to as a bully. He told me that I always had my subway face on and I was treating the people around me like crap including the faculty. Never in my life had I been accused of that and I was certainly taken aback, but he was right. I had brought with me the habits that helped me survive and thrive in a public school in one of the roughest areas. I witnessed fist fights between teachers and students, fights in the streets by school, and fights on my way walking home. This was the norm. If you looked nice or like you were happy, it was cause for a fight.
It was that conversation that let me know there was more to this school than getting your work done well. It was the first time I realized that the way I navigated the world affected the people around me and how I behaved had an impact beyond just me, it was a reflection of the school, and my family. It was the first time that I realized that people in authority were on our side and had our best interests in mind. That was the beginning of truly knowing that this place was safe, outside of my own household, there were few places that were. I could call De La Salle home.
If I wasn’t at home or at a friend from DLSA’s house, I was there in school. I arrived at about 7am and left when it closed – rather was walked out by Brother Brian or Ms. Bunn. I remember just always being there. Never wanting to leave. Brother Brian’s birthday is St. Patrick’s Day, and even though we had the day off, I showed up and went to the parade with my principal. That’s weird in any other environment, but it was home. I wanted to be there with my friends to create those experiences, those memories. I still show up there unannounced.
De La Salle opened many doors for me. I went to the Physician Scientist Training Program (PSTP) during the summers, intended to help me realize a dream I had been working so hard toward in my adolescence. I ended up at St. Paul’s School for high school and went on to do a year abroad in Spain. My final year there I was a Prefect and helped the younger students navigate their transition to boarding school. From there I went to Haverford College, majoring in Spanish with the intention of going on to Medical School. Not only was I thoroughly prepared for the work that I would have, but I was secure in knowing that I would thrive there.
The only thing I was not prepared for was the fact that people that look like me and come from similar places would not be the norm. Beautiful, smart black and brown bodies were few and far between, but I never forgot what I witnessed with my own eyes. I gathered strength from the DLSA community to face the challenges that came my way and continue to come. I knew I fit in, I knew I belonged, and I earned a spot in those rooms. I knew that I was more than just intelligent, I was a great community member and would be a good leader and deserved to be followed because I had inherent value, and value I could add to the spaces around me. I knew how to be there for people in need, whether it be friends or family. I knew how to be aware of how my actions affect the people around me.
De La Salle is special to me because it shaped my core values. In a time when I was trying to fit in with the world it showed me that who I was was enough and was worth something. I felt like I belonged, whereas everywhere else I was on the periphery. I mattered and that is something so priceless and necessary. I am a better person today from the lessons and experiences I had at 11-13 years of age, and I have been able to turn that into meaningful work. Though being a Doctor or MD/PhD was the path I was on, I was able to connect with a De La Salle Alum and go into business for myself, helping others develop financial dignity. And now I get to thrive in an environment where the motto is “people before profits,” where the only way I succeed is by helping the people around me live better lives. I get to live my purpose and help others along the way, opening doors to others that may not have any other options or access.
De La Salle is so important to me because it gave me a platform to succeed or fail as I was, not as a representative of myself. Just to know that there is someone rooting for you and counting on you when so many people have counted you out because of your situation or status is something that is so special. To know that you are important, not just for your intellect or socioeconomic status, makes you better equipped to take on the world. You have a community that understands and will help you through the challenges so you don’t have to face the world alone. That’s why De La Salle is important to the world.