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Dasmine Cathey Reflects on His Moment in the Spotlight

“The Education of Dasmine Cathey”—a recent Chronicle story about a fifth-year senior at the University of Memphis who started college with severe reading challenges and is just a few credits away from a degree—stirred up strong feelings on many issues. Among them were questions about the shortcomings of elementary and secondary education, access to college, academic rigor, and the role of counselors in helping the least-prepared students.

I heard feedback on the article from many of those counselors last weekend, at the annual convention of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. And while I certainly didn’t hear from everyone, one common response went like this:

“The problem is, we’ve all got that person on our campus,” said one director of academic support at a major public university. “We just don’t want anyone to know.”

Readers and commentators responded to the article in forums as varied as Metafilter, Deadspin, and The New York Times. Most viewed Cathey as a sympathetic figure who was a victim of his circumstances.

“Damn,” one commenter wrote. “Hats off to him for his perseverance and attitude.” Others congratulated him for his courage. “Your story will be an inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of youth in this city and surrounding area,” one Memphis man wrote.

When the article came out, Cathey seemed to enjoy the limelight. He directed friends to read the piece, and sent me a note of thanks. In a phone conversation, he told me that, by opening up about the challenges he had kept inside for so long, he felt a big weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

But some of Cathey’s family members didn’t think the story accurately portrayed their financial situation. They may not have a lot of money, but they don’t see themselves as poor. And as you might expect from a guy who has spent much of his life taking care of the people around him, their concerns upset him.

“Never meant to hurt my family,” he wrote on Facebook.

But if he had it to do over, he told me, he would have described the situation in just the same way. As for the story, he said, “I wouldn’t change a single word.”

He didn’t feel the same about the column that Joe Nocera wrote about him in Saturday’s New York Times. That article gave him credit for helping his family and improving his reading. But in describing Cathey’s academic papers, Nocera said they seemed “more like the work of a seventh grader than a college student.”

The ending didn’t sit well with Cathey, either. Nocera congratulated him on learning to read, to which the 23-year-old said: “Thanks. The thing I have to work on now is understanding what I’m reading.”

Cathey wrote me an e-mail that morning, saying that he was having “bad feelings” about the Times article. “They’re making it seem like I’m stupid for teaching myself to read,” he said.

When we talked by phone a little while later, he was trying to remain upbeat. “It’ll be all right,” he said. Then we chatted about some radio and television interviews people wanted to do with him, and a local newspaper reporter who had called.

Cathey’s reaction to the situation reminded me of a moment he and I shared when I was in Memphis a few months ago. I was recording him talking about his struggles overcoming reading and other challenges, and I asked him how he gets himself through rough spots.

Whenever things seem too hard, he said, he listens to a song that always cheers him up.

“What’s that song? How’s it go?” I asked. This was his response:

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