Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Where a Man Stands

Another hit for T.D. Jakes? The famed preacher/author/producer whose inspirational film credits include the 2014 hit Heaven is for Real Where a Man Stands by  Carter Paysinger and Steven Fenton (published by Howard Books/ Simon & Schuster) tells the true story of the authors’ special friendship — a friendship that took deep and lasting root despite their differences in age, race, religion and economic class.

The joint memoir tells the story of  how Carter Paysinger became the first black principal in the 80-year history of Beverly Hills High School — and how a white student (Steven Fenton) he mentored as a baseball coach and teacher played a key role in winning the job and turning the struggling school around.

 Here’s the story as summarized by the book’s press release: Coming from South Central Los Angeles, Carter Paysinger entered the rarified world of Beverly Hills when his determined mother secured a coveted multicultural permit that allowed a few minority kids from less privileged parts of LA to attend the exclusive and predominantly white Beverly Hills High School. Carter was a fish out of water in three distinct ways:

  • a black student in an almost exclusively white school
  • a Christian in a predominantly Jewish community
  • a boy from the wrong side of the tracks going to school in one of the world’s wealthiest zip codes

But Carter not only survived, he thrived. And during his years as a student, his roots to the school were so deeply planted that after he earned his undergraduate and master’s degree, he returned to BHHS as a coach and teacher, becoming a mentor for innumerable kids in need of a nurturing ear or a shoulder to cry on.

One of those students was Steven Fenton, who bonded with his coach in a deeply profound and meaningful way. Their unlikely friendship buoyed the spirit of both mentor and mentee. But then Steven graduated and many years passed before the two men would see each other again.

During these intervening years, Carter became its most winning and favorite coach. But Beverly Hills High School was having problems, with principals hired and fired and families fleeing the school. As fate would have it, after twenty years apart, Carter ran into Steven and together they found renewed passion and hope to fight for their community. Their first and most important step was Carter applying for the principal position. Both men thought this was a logical career move for Carter and so Steven set out to help Carter secure the position. In a surprising turn of events, they came to learn that the beloved teacher and coach didn’t fit the “profile” for the Beverly Hills image. At that point all hell broke loose.

Notably, in his first year as Carter (who has been married to his wife Karen for thirty years) led Beverly Hills High to the highest Academic Performance Index ranking in the school’s history. Steven, BTW, is married to TV personality Leeza Gibbons and has worked in Hollywood as a talent manager for over twenty years. I recently had the opportunity to speak with both men about their unique story.

JWK: How did you friendship come to be?

CARTER PAYSINGER: I grew up in South Central Los Angeles and went to Beverly Hills High School on a permit. It was a diversity permit. It was really difficult to get and, fortunately, I was able to obtain one. After Beverly, I went to college and, short version, I came back to Beverly Hills High School as a coach. Keep in mind, I had the experience of living in South Central LA and going to school in Beverly Hills, navigating my way through both those different worlds.

JWK: What was it like to be straddling those two worlds?

CP: At the time, I didn’t really give it much thought other than the fact that I knew that I had to keep them separate. My friends in South Central were my friends and the same was so for the friends I had in Beverly Hills. Rarely did they cross paths.

JWK: What years are we talking about?

CP: Early seventies. So, fast forward, I graduated and was going to college and, while I was in college, I visited Beverly to watch my younger brother play baseball and football and the coaches there recruited me to come back and coach.

JWK: Was your brother going to the school too?

CP: Yeah, my younger brother went to Beverly as well.

JWK: Had you been in touch with your coaches since you left?

CP: I came back occasionally and maintained a relationship with the coaches. It was only when I came back regularly to watch my younger brother play (that) they said “Carter, if you’re gonna come back and watch your brother play you might as well coach.” So, I took them up on their offer and started coaching. Shortly after that, I got my teaching credentials and started teaching. And, I don’t know, three or four years after I started, I was coaching baseball and had a tryout and Steven Fenton was one of the kids trying out. I’ll let Steven take it from there but that’s when we actually first met.

STEVEN FENTON: I had heard a lot about Carter through my older brother Gary who was two years ahead of me at Beverly. I had heard nothing but great things about Carter so I was excited about the opportunity to potentially play for him. So, here I am as a fifteen-year-old going out for baseball and getting an opportunity to play for Carter for the first time.

JWK: How did that go? Was it a winning team?

SF: We did well that year but, more importantly, it established my relationship with Carter.  It was my first of four years in a row playing baseball for Carter at Beverly High.

JWK: You later went on to work in the government, correct?

SF: I did. Years later, after college, I went into the entertainment industry. I was about fifteen years after that (that) I got into city government.

JWK: So, Carter,  how did this story come full circle to the point where Steven, who you once coached, played a role in you becoming the first black principal of Beverly Hills High?

CP: Well, I was a longtime teacher and coach. Things were going great both in professions — as a teacher and as a coach. I had the opportunity to work with a number of teachers that were there when I was a student. I don’t know, probably fifteen years into my career things started to change. Beverly was always known as one of the top high schools in the country and, for whatever reason, leadership was changing…the direction of the school was changing.

JWK: So, the school ran into some tough times.

CP: Yeah. Some of our most popular teachers — and my mentors — were leaving prematurely and looking to work elsewhere or looking to just retire early. There reasons for leaving were all the same…And then about twenty years after Steven graduated, I was coaching football and we were coming into the locker room and I ran into Steven again.

SF: I was in my mid-thirties, had gone through a divorce and went through a pretty bad place in my life. Periodically, throughout my adult life when things got rough for me I would go back to Beverly High and walk around the baseball field. I’d actually lie down under the stars and look for strength, look for a signal, some sort of sign. It was always the place that I felt most powerful. So, here I was in my mid-thirties going back to Beverly High. I would go back when no one was around, late at night.

On this particular night, I had gotten out of my car. I had walked through the tunnel that connects the locker room to the baseball field. I’m walking through this tunnel and I look up and I see two kids in uniform walking towards me. At this point, I don’t know what’s going on. All of sudden those two kids dart right off into the locker room and standing behind them was Carter. It was the first time I had seen him in many, many years. Seeing Carter, I gave him the hug of a lifetime. He asked me how I was doing. I said I was doing okay. I asked him how he was doing and he said the same. We agreed to get together. We exchanged numbers and the very next day I reached out to Carter and we actually go together that afternoon and that was the beginning.

JWK: So, how did this lead to Carter becoming principal and what was your role in that?

SF: When we got together he started to open up and share. He let me know what was going on with him and with the school and the more that he was opening up and sharing, specifically about the school, the angrier I was getting about what had happened to our alma mater. It clearly wasn’t the same. Carter had really one foot out the door and was looking to possibly make a change professionally. I told Carter that I was going to do my own investigating and was going to look into all the things that he was talking about and said was going on. I wanted to talk to the people in the community and get their take as well.

After hearing from Carter and hearing from other people in the community, I went to Carter and I said “Look, there’s so much to do and so much that can be done. I’m willing to take a step forward and try to make these changes. So, therefore, I’ve decided I’m going to run for the Board of Education but I’m only going to run under one circumstance.” And he looked at me as if to say “What’s that?” And I said “Only if you agree to become the principal if I were to make it onto the Board of Education.” So, I was fortunate enough to get elected to a four-year term. About halfway into my four-year term I was installed as president. That’s when we made our move. There was an opening for the principal job and that’s when Carter applied.

JWK: What year was this?

SF: This was 2010.

JWK: Was there any opposition?

CP: Yeah, there was opposition. We knew going in that there would probably be opposition.

JWK: Did race play a role in that opposition?

CP: I believe it did…I was the first African-American this close to becoming the principal at Beverly. I’m sure it did not sit well with some people. Like I said, we knew that there would be some opposition but I had no idea how deep the opposition would be. Sitting in board meetings during this process, listening to people come to the podium and talk about why I should not be the principal was disconcerting but it was interesting. Some of the same people that I had great relationships with throughout the years stayed silent during this time. I really felt like they were supporting me but, at the same time, I felt like it was, in their eyes, a tremendous risk to speak out on my behalf. So, yeah, there was quite a bit of opposition.

Steven and his family were very well-known in the city. His parents were extremely powerful in the city of Beverly Hills politically. They really went out on a limb and took a lot of risk by doing this. So, it was tough on their family — probably as tough on their family, or more so, than it was on me and my family.

SF: To Carter’s point, change requires that you think differently…I think that could be very uncomfortable for a lot of people.

JWK: Did those who opposed actually bring up race — or did they cite or claim other reasons for their opposition?

SF: I think people circled around that issue. People loved Carter — but they loved him in a box that was comfortable for them. Like I said, change can be very uncomfortable for people.  For us, in this book, the message is really (about) what you’re willing to put on the line for what you care about.

JWK: How did the idea come for the two of you to collaborate on a book?

SF: It came from a conversation that I ended up having with our now-literary agent who asked me if we would be interested in writing a book.

JWK: How long did it take to actually write the book?

SF: It took us a couple of years.

JWK: So, Carter, you’re writing the book while you’re actually principal of the school — so the story’s kind of ongoing while you’re writing it.

CP: Right, absolutely…We started it right after Steven came off the board.

JWK: And, from what I understand, things have turned around for the better at Beverly Hills High.

CP: Yeah, the school’s doing well.

JWK: Have attitudes changed since you started?

CP: First of all, after my first year as principal, we ended up with the highest test scores in the school’s history. As far as the attitudes, I think that what changed was that the people who supported me quietly during the process were now coming out — and have been coming out — to support me verbally and openly. I think also those that did not support me never gave up on the idea of me not being the principal. So, I think those people are not as vocal as they were during the process but they’re still there and there are still, I think, things done by them to make this as difficult as possible.

JWK: What surprises me is that you became principal in 2010 — two years after America elected its first black president. Yet, in possibly the most liberal area of the country you still met opposition from people who possibly opposed you on the basis of your skin color.

CP: Yeah. This could be case throughout the country, in many places. There are people who are just uncomfortable — as Steven was talking about — with change, uncomfortable with new ideas and are willing to fight, to a certain extent, to keep the status quo. I think that’s the case here.

JWK: What changed did you make at the school that facilitated its better test scores and overall comeback?

CP: Well, again, you gotta remember, I went to Beverly at a time when things were great and we were considered one of the best high schools in the country. When I first started working there, as a teacher and a young coach, the same was true. So, I knew what it looked like. I knew what it took to reach those levels. And so…I had a plan going in to refocus everyone. Our teachers were really good teachers and those that weren’t good teachers were good teachers at one point — otherwise they wouldn’t have been teachers on our staff. (My plan) was to really focus our staff, reconnect with our community and our students and have everyone going in the same direction and that’s what we did. We put aside all of the things that really didn’t matter and started focusing on the couple things that really did matter.

JWK: Steven, you have a background in the entertainment industry. Did that play a role in the current plans to turn Where a Man Stands into a movie?

SF: When word got out that we were writing this book people started to call right away (with interest in) potentially locking up the film rights. Fortunately, the interest was there right away. Carter and I really wanted to focus on finishing the book before we really delved into those conversations. So, we put those conversations, for the most part, on hold until we finished the book. And he we are…We’re really excited to be involved with Bishop Jakes and are excited about his optics on our story.

JWK: How did you connect with Bishop Jakes?

SF: We were introduced to Bishop Jakes through our literary agent, Lacy Lynch at Dupree Miller.

JWK: What can people of faith take from this story?

CP: I talk a lot about my faith throughout the book.  For me, it’s  faith, family and friends. That’s what’s carried me through the tough times — as well the good times. I think the one message that we want to get across to everyone is that we all go through things and as long as you keep your priorities right and fight for what you believe is right, regardless of the adversity that you may face, there are rewards at the end of that journey.

JWK: What are your plans for the future?

CP: I’m not sure what I’m going to do next…There are a lot of things I’d like to do before retiring. I’m just looking forward to whatever options are available.

JWK: Has your friendship become stronger through whole book-to-movie process?

SF: Oh, absolutely.

JWK: Why do you think you two connected so deeply when your backgrounds are so different?

CP: When Steven tried out for the baseball team, he reminded me so much of me. Because when I — (some years) before — tried out for the baseball team I was the smallest guy out there. I was not known by anyone out there and I really felt like I had to show what I could do. I was determined — and that’s exactly what I saw in Steven.

SF: Carter and I come from different races, different religions, we grew up with different economic backgrounds… (but) we have the same set of values, same morals and the same beliefs. And, at the end of the day, we really are the same person.

JWK: So, I guess the message of your friendship is that values and core beliefs trump and overcome the obvious but, in the deeper reality, superficial differences.

CP:  Absolutely. The values in which you believe — where you stand in life and what you stand for in life — is really what matters…We grew up with strong family values. My parents were Dr. Martin Luther King disciples. They faithfully followed his preaching. We grew up with those values. Do the best you can and always strive to be great.

JWK: Obviously, race — and racial tension — has been in the news an awful lot recently.  Some people feel that race relations have actually grown worse in recent years. As a follower of the teachings of Reverend King, do you have any thoughts on where we are now as a nation — and what we can do to improve things?

CP:  Regardless of which side you are on in terms of Ferguson and some of the other race issues that are happening in our country, I think the conversation will provoke change and I think, ultimately, that’s what we’re looking for.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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