A fairytale from Harvard

A fairytale from Harvard

Roland Fryer’s childhood days were no indicators of the legend he was to become. Infact, the boy who belonged to a family caught in the perpetual...

Roland Fryer’s childhood days were no indicators of the legend he was to become. Infact, the boy who belonged to a family caught in the perpetual crossfire of drug dealers, smugglers and FBI agents had resigned himself to the genuinely high odds of being shot dead by the age of 30. But a small change of plans! Fryer instead became the youngest African-American to secure tenure at Harvard University as a revered economics professor.

And that is not all, On April 24, 2015, he won the John Bates Clark medal, a coveted honour, next only the Nobel prize. Fryer’s story may be seen as the unlikeliest of aberrations, but it still makes a compelling argument in favour of his indomitable spirit.

Roland Gehrard Fryer Jr’s story has a takeaway for everybody who believes his fate is predetermined by the sum total of prosperity, success, luck and a great family. Infact, Fryer had little reason to be proud of the household he was born into.

One of his contemporaries, talking to New York Times, described Fryer’s childhood as a cram of violent incidents, abuse and unrelenting misfortune. Beaten to submission by an abusive father, Fryer made his way through nooks and corners of Fryer Sr’s wild temper. His 43-year old father was later arrested and jailed for sexual harassment, an incident that almost sealed Fryer’s fate as the son of a sex-abuser, well almost.

At fifteen, when he had gathered that his life may have hit rock bottom, he was pulled over by the police, who thought he was a crack dealer. Lying flat on his face as they pinned him to the ground and questioned him, Fryer vacillated between utter humiliation and panic. This incident was burnt into the young boy’s memory and would play a major role in shaping the Harvard professor he would grow up to be.

His admission into the University of Texas, Arlington, proved to be the first ever good thing to happen to eighteen year old Fryer. It was here he realised that he had been gifted with a brain meant to dabble in numbers and esoteric theories and a resolve to outdo his better placed peers. While carrying the trying courseload at the university, Fryer also took up a job at a community college to pay off his father’s bail bondsman.

Today, many of Fryer’s research papers and his field of study are inspired by his childhood and his need to feel vindicated, believes Stephen J. Dubner. Even though Fryer is an exception to the norm, he engages in the volatile assumption that the doleful fate of African-American communities in the US just may, in a very small part, be determined by their genetic predisposition.

His experiments to boost the performance levels of African-American children in school by introducing innocuous monetary benefits yielded surprising results, in parts disproving his doubts. His papers are path breaking and his penchant to draw rational and applicable conclusions from cold and raw data has reserved for him a place among the best brains in the field of economics. Indeed, Roland Fryer’s childhood days were no indicators of the legend he was to become. He just refused to let them be the deciding factors.

By:Mythili Sankara

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