Late Admissions: Confessions of a Black Conservative

A Brown University economist reflects on his early education in a rollicking new memoir
Photo of Glenn Loury
In Late Admissions, Glenn Loury offers readers an unvarnished look into his life.

In a photograph of the John Marshall Harlan High School chess team, I stand in the lower right corner, smiling in a striped collared shirt. I appear to be looking just to the side of the camera. Compared to my six classmates, I look like a mere child who has somehow found his way into the picture. But my presence there is authentic. Due to a combination of intellectual precociousness and a registration error that led me to skip a year and a half of elementary school, I entered high school at age twelve.

Precociousness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, despite my youth, I excel academically. Classes are a breeze. Even material that makes my brighter classmates wince, like learning Latin declensions, comes easily to me. With that ease, I earn a reputation as a bit of a prodigy, which I revel in. I take any chance I can to display my facility with the material. I can sit in trigonometry class—one of my favorites—and explain the lesson backward and forward almost as well as the teacher can. I can absorb and synthesize whatever equation, text, or concept I’m presented with as naturally as breathing. It is my first taste of the power and the freedom that come with intellectual mastery, and I want all I can get.

On the other hand, looking like a child—being, in fact, a child—among teenagers has its drawbacks. In Little League, I had been a very good pitcher, and I retain my athletic ambitions in high school, thinking that perhaps I’d like to try out for the basketball team. But one look at the Harlan High squad dashes those hopes. Not only are these, to all appearances, full-grown men out on the floor, they’re good. There is no way my undersized body could handle running smack into one of those brick wall picks or taking a charge to the chest from a two-hundred-pound center.

But worse than that, there is the dating scene. Advanced as I am in the classroom, outside of it I am a social novice, especially when it comes to girls. While my youth makes my academic accomplishments more impressive, it also saddles me with a seemingly insurmountable disadvantage when it comes to dating in my early high school years. The fact is that I cannot translate my gregariousness and wit into credible flirtation, the sort of thing that might lead to a date and from a date to necking and then to who knows where.

The boy in that chess team’s photo does not yet have the makings of a Player—someone whose mastery over whatever game is at hand commands the respect and admiration of others. He is not a Gouster, one of the tough, dark-skinned kids who live in the towering apartment buildings to the west of the Dan Ryan Expressway across from Park Manor. You can recognize the Gousters by their loose-fitting pleated pants and knit shirts. Even if he had the wardrobe, the boy in the chess team’s photograph would never be mistaken for one of them, with their swagger and fabulous dancing and the switchblades in their pockets. Even as kids, the Gousters ran with legitimate gangsters, and they would sniff that boy out in an instant, as would those fly girls who were always hanging around them.

Neither is he an Ivy Leaguer, one of the light-skinned kids living in the bungalows and low-occupancy apartment buildings on the east side of the expressway, with their starched-collar Brooks Brothers shirts under V-neck sweaters and their tapered pants and loafers. The Ivy Leaguers are nothing but punks as far as the Gousters are concerned, and the Gousters are nothing but thugs as far as the Ivy Leaguers are concerned. What they have in common is that none of them take much notice of the boy in the photograph, as he poses no threat. They regard him, he imagines, with thinly veiled contempt. The boy himself registers these slights and feels a rising urge to make his presence felt, not as a Gouster or Ivy Leaguer, but as a Player of his own making.

The author (front row, right) as a 12-year-old student at Harlan High School on the south side of Chicago, circa 1960.
The author (front row, right) as a 12-year-old student at Harlan High School on the south side of Chicago, circa 1960.

* * *

I’m missing someone important at Harlan High: Woody. Despite the fact that we’re neighbors, we go to different schools. Neither of us attends nearby Parker High, which is in a state of decline. It’s no longer the sort of place either my family or Woody’s deems suitable. Woody attends the private, all-boys Mendel Catholic Prep, while I have managed to attend Harlan with the help of a little legerdemain. Park Manor falls outside of Harlan’s district, but the apartment my father shares with his new wife, Constance, does not. When I register, we put down my father’s address instead of Eloise’s.

Woody would never have made it at Parker anyway. Looking to all the world like a white kid, he surely would have been brutalized by the Gousters who inhabit the place. Even if Parker’s academics had been up to snuff, it would have been a hazardous environment for someone who stands out the way Woody does. And, proud as he is, he would likely not have had the sense to back down from a fight he was sure to lose. Woody knows how to take a punch, but how many punches can one man take?

Mendel, by contrast, is mostly white. Woody could have pretended to be like one of the other Irish or Polish or Italian kids there. But he takes his family’s decision to stick with their own people to heart, and he doesn’t even try to pass. If anything, his racially ambiguous appearance prods Woody to double down on his blackness, which he proudly trumpets every chance he gets.

I miss Woody’s company at school, but our connection is strong enough to survive our days of separation. On our Little League team, I was a pitcher and he was a catcher. We would spend long afternoons practicing signals and pitches in the alley. While I had the precision and focus to reliably place a pitch wherever I wanted it to go, Woody had the toughness to endure the catcher’s physically demanding role. He was a little undersized, but he was sinewy and competed as though possessed. When a runner came hurtling toward the plate, determined to bowl Woody over and knock the ball out of his hands, he would invariably stand his ground, make the tag, and take the hit.

While my athletic aspirations stall out in high school, Woody’s are fulfilled. Although I’m bigger and stronger than Woody, I’m still no physical threat to anybody. But he manages to turn himself into an asset on the wrestling squad, working out and cramming in the calories to make weight. He excels through pure grit, ferocity, and an ability to endure pain. By the time he graduates, he’ll have a letter sewn onto his Mendel varsity jacket in honor of his achievements on the mat. I will envy him for that.

But no matter our differing experiences, and no matter Woody’s athletic accomplishments, we’re both odd ducks in our way. Though we have to navigate the halls of our respective schools without each other, we are still always there for one another, lounging in wait on the front lawn with our bikes or trotting out to the street for a game of catch, baseballs in one hand and gloves on the other.

* * *

As I found out later, there was a path not taken, one that might actually have led me away from Woody. At some point before I entered high school, my parents had a meeting with an admissions officer at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The Lab Schools were, and remain, a beacon of progressive education. There teachers implemented innovative pedagogical techniques and researchers produced new knowledge about education. One of my public school teachers had apparently passed my name on to someone at the school and informed them that I would make an excellent candidate for admission.

Had I attended the Lab Schools, I undoubtedly would have found myself among other students with my intellectual abilities and proclivities, the kind of kids who, like me, knew their way around a slide rule and a chessboard and thought that spending an afternoon reading the World Book Encyclopedia constituted a pretty good time. In an environment like that, I surely would have found myself challenged in ways that were simply beyond the capacity of a public school like Harlan High. I had several excellent teachers at Harlan, but, understandably, more of their energy was expended on those lagging behind than those barreling ahead. While I likely would have been an advanced student even at the Lab Schools, I would have been much closer to the norm there than at Harlan.

That is what I imagine would have been the case, anyway. I never did find out, because I did not end up attending the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. In a rare instance of consensus, my parents decided against pursuing admission.

I never got a full explanation as to why, but I did get a sense of their reasoning. It was not about the kind of education I would receive. I suspect it had more to do with the kind of social world I would enter at the Laboratory Schools, and the effect my parents imagined it would have on me. Though nested among neighborhoods much rougher than Park Manor, the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus existed then and exists now as a world apart from the rest of the South Side. In the early 1960s, it would have been an almost entirely white world of students, administrators, and professors. The Lab Schools would have been staffed mostly by white teachers, and my peers would have been mostly the white children of mostly white academics and professionals, with the occasional black, brown, or Asian face dotting the yearbook pages.

Perhaps my parents were worried about racial stigma, about my feeling out of place or alienated because of the color of my skin. It is also possible that, in their meeting, they felt condescended to by an admissions officer who may have arrogantly insinuated that these young, relatively unsophisticated, divorced Negro parents ought to hand over their gifted son to the people who could do for him what they plainly could not. Maybe this person would have suggested that my parents should feel gratitude for the opportunity, as if Everett Loury and Gloria Cartman were less than capable of providing comparable opportunities for their child. I don’t know if any of that did happen, but such a scenario is not implausible.

More than the possible condescension of the administrator or the probable realization that their son would be one of very few black students, I imagine my parents would have known that I could not spend four years in Hyde Park’s rarified air and emerge unchanged. I would change by virtue of acquiring education, of course, and I’m sure they thought that was all to the good. But what manners and habits of mind would I absorb from the children of these intellectuals and doctors and lawyers? What new tastes would I develop amidst the University of Chicago’s imposing gothic spires, hidden away from the precincts of “my people”? Why had Aunt Eloise gathered us up and brought us into her home in the first place, if not for fear that we malleable souls would find ourselves deformed by our environment? While Hyde Park did not threaten to deform me, my parents may have perceived that it had the power to transform me into someone they would no longer recognize and, even more poignantly, someone who would no longer recognize them in himself. Even as a preteen, I was already developing a reputation for being a headstrong smart aleck. Perhaps they worried that one day they would look at my face and see that Lab Schools administrator’s arrogant grin slashing across it.

* * *

Loury graduates as valedictorian from Harlan High School at 16 and begins attending the Illinois Institute of Technology. There he struggles academically for the first time in his education.

* * *

Book cover of Late Admissions by Glenn LouryThe new Bauhaus school of architecture looms large of the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the 1930s, it merged with the Institute of Design, which is founded and run by László Moholy-Nagy, a force within the Bauhaus movement who came to Chicago by way of London after fleeing the Nazis. The campus was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and his S. R. Crown Hall that houses the architecture department is a masterpiece in glass, concrete, and steel. Every bench and building seem to communicate that this is a serious place where serious people come to study their craft.

Besides the intimidating minimalism of IIT’s structures and grounds, there are the students. They walk briskly from class to class, sporting crew cuts, slide rules hanging from their belts, and picket protectors nestled into their button-down shirts. Almost all of them are what we would call “white ethnics”: Polish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, and Slavic. Many of those who are Chicago natives came up through Lane or Tilden, renowned and specialized technical high schools that had prepared generations of working-class Chicago kids for the rigors of engineering, mathematics, and physics.

At this time, IIT is not about the shaping of young people into free-thinking citizens or the cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities or the Socratic method. This is a science boot camp. In the first year, everyone takes calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. Sit, pay attention, learn your equations, and God help you if you fall behind in your coursework. I’ve got a natural aptitude for these subjects, but natural aptitude is not enough in this environment. Success here requires long hours of disciplined study, hunched over notes and textbooks. It requires unwavering focus.

Before my first semester at IIT, my father presented me with a gift of $1,000, a considerable sum of money in 1965, and especially considerable because he was probably only making around $10,000 a year. Scraping together that much cash could not have been easy, and despite his obvious eagerness to see me out on my own and off his expense book, he wanted to make sure that I had a little something extra to transition into adult life.

That transition is not going well. I do okay for the first part of my first semester, but things quickly go to pieces. I start spending most of my time hanging out with Woody, who had enrolled at IIT along with me, and with my new friend John, a transplant from New York with a taste for vodka and reefer. John is one of the few other black people on campus. He’s light-skinned, from a well-to-do family, and he carries himself with a certain swagger and braggadocio. He tells me he plays chess, but after I decimate him in game after game, it’s clear he’s barely a novice. As an amateur boxer, he’s much more formidable. For some reason, I think he’ll be as easy to take in the ring as he is on the chessboard, but I abandon that notion, along with boxing itself, after John pops me in the face a few times with his wicked left jabs and I see stars.

I rarely make it to class now, and when I do, I sit and stare at the calculus lessons on the board, utterly lost in a moth class, the place where I often felt most comfortable in high school. I’m three assignments behind in chemistry, and I’ve stopped bothering to tell myself that I’ll catch up eventually. The more I fall behind, the more attending class becomes a psychologically fraught experience. I had been the brightest kid in any grade at every school I’d attended up to now. I know I have the ability to understand this material. Why am I failing while my cohorts seem ready to meet the challenge? As the missed classes, missed assignments, and flunked exams pile up, so does the guilt. Sitting through lectures that I barely understand only amplifies the awful feeling that I’m embarrassing both myself and my family, so I often skip them rather than endure the suffering.

I know this is a losing strategy, that I can’t continue in this way and expect to graduate. Things will change next week, I tell myself. I’ll buckle down and put all this angst behind me.

* * *

Loury drops out of IIT after one semester. He gets a job at a printing plant as a timekeeper and unexpectedly becomes a father. Taking classes at Southeast Junior College on Chicago’s South Side, Loury must balance work, family, and school as the war in Vietnam reaches its peak in the late 1960s.

* * *

Studying accounting seems like the right course for me. My father had earned a degree in accounting and now he’s working for a regional office of the irs and sweating his way through law school at night. The world’s always going to need accountants, I figure, and the math involved is a cinch for me. I even start to enjoy learning about the ins and outs of the tax code, depreciation formulas, and why one asset is taxed in one way and another is taxed differently. These are the mechanisms that generate the vast majority of the federal government’s income, and studying them is like reading the schematics of the state’s engine. After earning some more credits at the community college, my plan is to transfer to the University of Illinois’s Chicago Circle campus so as to finish my bachelor’s and start a career following in my father’s footsteps.

Since I’m studying so hard and doing so well at the community college, I decide that I’m ready for more advanced mathematics and sign up for a two-semester sequence in calculus. After a semester of straight A’s, I’m feeling confident in my abilities. I no longer have any fear that I’ll end up shirking class and succumbing to self-doubt.

The instructor is Professor Andres, a retired engineer and graduate of Northwestern who’s teaching here seemingly purely for the love of it. Not only does he love it, he’s really good at it. He has a gift for making the abstract propositions of calculus comprehensible, in much the same way that Mr. Reffels unveiled the relationship between cone segments and the quadratic equation. But the possibilities inherent in calculus go far beyond the cone. I’m mesmerized by the lectures, by the subtle connections among algebra, geometry, and trigonometry that the mastery of calculus lays bare. When I sit down to study for the class, I’m driven by something deeper than the desire for a good grade. I want to know this material, truly know it, understand it inside and out. Whatever it is that’s driving me has little to do with the applicability of what I’m learning, how it will help me in life, how I will be able to use calculus in some practical endeavor. I only know that I need to master it.

My desire to understand Professor Andres’s calculus lessons regularly drives me to his office. I sit with my notes and the textbook and ask him a question. Before he’s half through answering it, I understand where his response is going and finish his thought for him. After several weeks of regular appearances at office hours, we start chatting more informally. He asks me about myself, where I’m from, what makes me so interested in calculus. I tell him the basics: South Side, married with two young kids, working full-time, and trying to make something of myself after a false start. Naturally, he’s intrigued. Many students here regard community college as a fifth or sixth year of high school. They’re content to coast through. One of the few guys engaging with the material seriously is, well, me. I’m smart, but on paper I’m prime drop-out material. And yet.

Something about my persistence and abilities must impress Professor Andres. He knows about my plans to apply to the University of Illinois, but he lets me know there are other options. He hands me a phone number and tells me to call it. Northwestern has a program for people like me: talented inner-city kids who haven’t taken the most traditional path to college. Professor Andres tells me he’s recommended me, and that they’re expecting my phone call. That is, if I’m interested.

The idea of attending a place like Northwestern has never even occurred to me. Situated on the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston, a suburb to the north of the city, Northwestern is one of the top universities in the country. I have no idea what goes on in a place like that, but in my mind, it’s a temple of knowledge where distinguished professors toil away on complex and obscure problems while the well-heeled children of the elite sit in rapt attention in oak-lined lecture halls and stay up at night in their dorm rooms debating the big questions. Uncle Adlert had attended Northwestern’s law school, and it had only added to the stories and legends that surrounded him. Consequently, the place has an aura to it, and I believe being associated with the school could impart the same aura to me. So yes, I tell Professor Andres, I am interested.

Excerpted from Late Admissions: Confessions of a Black Conservative by Glenn Loury. Copyright © 2024 by Glenn Loury. Published by W. W. Norton. Reprinted by permission.

Glenn Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. He is host of the podcast “The Glenn Show.”

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