Polo in Philadelphia: Work to Ride Proves the Game’s Not Just for Ivy League

DEBATES OVER NATURE AND NURTURE ARE ENDLESS, largely because there is no actual winner—just a long contest between the world we find at hand when we first reach for our mother’s breast, and our individual efforts to maximize the possibilities inherent in who we are. Work To Ride is a lesson in this complex alchemy—demonstrating how some kids like Brandon push toward a better life, while others remain stuck in the only lives they know: the drama of their streets.

“Most underprivileged kids live only within their neighborhoods,” says Work To Ride grad Kareem Rosser, the middle child between Jabarr and Daymar. “They only ever see what’s inside that 15-block radius. And for most kids in the program, what they see isn’t good.” “I saw shootings, lived around drug dealing, all those things,” says fellow grad John Fields. “Most kids in the program have.”

The stable represents a break from all that fear. It also exposes the kids to the world of legitimate commerce. They travel to polo matches, horse shows, country clubs and university campuses, in moneyed areas of Virginia, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts. When Work To Ride really works, they learn something else: They learn they can belong there.

The success stories impress: Work To Ride grad Tasha Harris is a senior geology major at Temple; Fields is in his second year at Community College of Philadelphia. Fellow program grad Prather sponsors two deserving Work To Ride kids per year on a weeklong West Coast road trip. He actually chaperoned Brandon Rease a couple years back, and remembers seeing the joy of revelation as the teenager accessed a whole new world.

The pair had driven deep into the desert, with nothing in sight on the horizon but blue sky and rolling brown land. Brandon stood and turned a slow circle in the vastness of this space. “This is incredible,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of nothing, but a whole lot of something!” Prather could feel what Brandon had grasped—a sense of his own unbounded place in the world, and the sudden certainty that by taking right actions today, he could live anywhere in it.

But this process is neither easy nor assured. The Work To Ride kids must survive their current environments, and Hiner and Prather must teach them how to navigate the strange new worlds of college campuses and country clubs. Do not filch all the crab legs from the buffet. Say “please” and “thank you.” Wait your turn to order. Don’t swear.

Some kids resist these ministrations; others blossom. Daymar Rosser now attends the Valley Forge Military Academy. Kareem led last year’s championship team, graduated from high school, and moved out of Philadelphia entirely. They embody the program’s success. But real life isn’t like The Blind Side, where all any black kid needs is Sandra Bullock to teach him how to play left tackle. If anything, that movie famously obliterated real life, rendering its central character, Michael Oher, into an oafish second fiddle—the generic black kid saved by White America. In real life, Oher is smart, and he played football, very well, before the white lady ever swanned into view. He was, in fact, the heavy lifter in a collaborative effort—pushing past his history as the son of a crack-addled mother and an oft-jailed father, embracing the new, safe environment he’d been generously provided, to save himself.

Much the same is true of the Work To Ride kids.

Consider Kareem Rosser’s life post-graduation­: He was offered a spot on the Cornell polo team, but his SAT scores weren’t high enough for admission. Faced with adversity, he hasn’t given up. Instead, he’s currently in his second semester at a community college just outside Ithaca, New York, where he hopes to leverage stellar grades into acceptance at Cornell next fall. In the meantime, he helps out at Cornell’s stables. “Lezlie teaches us that the point of the program is to get out,” he says. “To get an education. And that’s been my focus.”

In this context, Hiner’s prodigious labors, between 80 and 100 hours a week, give her kids a chance. But it’s Kareem Rosser who worked in those stables, who discovered what had opened up for him, and who continues to make smart, forward-looking choices. Not all of Work To Ride’s stories are so filled with hope.

Just 65 percent of Work To Ride kids graduate. That compares favorably to Overbrook High, where an estimated 85 percent live in poverty and just 58 percent graduate. But it isn’t the number we might expect from fawning media coverage of the polo team. The movie version of their story would end with the presentation of that championship trophy. In real life, the drama of their story continues, unabated. “In a weird sort of way, it’s almost like winning the championship hurt us,” says Hiner. “Because people hear that you have the best high-school polo team in the nation. They see you on ESPN. They see Kareem is in college. And they figure everything must be great.”

But everything is not great. In the recession, money has dried up, with total revenue plunging 22 percent, from $329,415 in 2008 to $256,198 in 2010. Then there are the kids who simply get lost to the streets, the third who don’t graduate. The ones like Mecca. Like Jabarr.

His brothers admit they want Jabarr to return, but don’t expect it. In fact, in separate interviews, Daymar and Kareem supply the same practiced answer on The Matter of Jabarr: “He has made his decision,” they say.

Daymar and Kareem see Jabarr on special occasions. They say he never mentions coming back, and rejects any suggestion­ that he should. Whatever pain Daymar feels over his eldest brother’s choice reveals itself obliquely. A long, lean, affable kid, Daymar has a confidence and polish befitting a military­-academy cadet. But when I ask him why Jabarr doesn’t return to polo, he looks at the ground. “I don’t understand what he’s thinking,” he tells me. “But … he has made his decision.”

I called Jabarr, who quickly begged off when I told him I was a reporter. “I’m jammed up right now,” he said. “Can you call back in 20 minutes?”

I called back, repeatedly. He never picked up again. And maybe that’s who he is: the kid who has made his decision. The kid who refuses to be reached. I suspect he didn’t answer because he knows the only real question I could ask is: Why? Why won’t you just come back? He probably has no answer for that. Just, perhaps, a feeling inside himself that the second, safer world he saw is somehow not where he belongs.

Because for some people, no matter how big the opportunity, the neighborhood can’t be escaped.

AFTER THE MATCH, THE KIDS FROM WORK TO RIDE join their opponents at the home of Harvard’s married polo coaches, Crocker and Cissie Snow. Those of age drink wine; soda flows for the under-21s. Great heaps of food are prepared: roast turkey, maple ham, buttered corn. An early Thanksgiving in mid-November.

Through a long night, the kids of Philadelphia’s inner city hold their own with the faculty, staff and students of Cambridge.

They talk about polo.

And horses.

And college majors. Casra, a Harvard economics student, talks to the kids about majoring in business, which both Daymar and Brandon plan to pursue. Brandon is targeting Georgetown, which has no polo program but an excellent business track. “It’d be nice if I could play polo in college,” says Brandon. “But this has always been about getting a college degree.”

The next morning, Crocker Snow takes the kids on an hour-long excursion on foot around his “family land”—a hundred acres in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He teaches the kids how to identify the different trees—the papery bark of the birch vs. the smooth gray maple. He describes a time in winter when he stumbled upon two coyotes feeding on a deer. The city kids stare at him, rapt, their wondering expressions suggesting that in their mind’s eye, they are re-creating all the details—the raw meat and the coyotes’ teeth, the deer blood staining the white snow.

“I could live here,” says Brandon, “in nature, in a metropolitan area, where I would have easy access to a city, on a train or by car. I’d like that.”

“I could, too,” says Daymar. “It’s peaceful. It’s quiet.”

The incredible thing is, this world is available to them. Lezlie Hiner has opened an escape hatch. But the very next day, after another polo match in Maryland, the world they’re all endeavoring to evade will come rushing back.

It happens in Southwest Philadelphia.

As Hiner is dropping off the first of four members of her girls team late in the evening, a car pulls up behind her truck.

From there, events unfold in slow motion and with unforgiving speed. A man emerges from the car, walks around Hiner’s vehicle, and draws a gun. There is a second man, already standing near Hiner’s truck. The gunman takes aim at the man.

The shooting starts. Four shots, pop-pop-pop-pop!, falling one upon the other. Through the windshield, Hiner and her girls see the bullets strike their target—tearing flesh, drawing blood.

The gunman never looks at Hiner or her girls. He just casually walks back to his car and drives off.

Almost immediately, a little girl comes running out from a nearby house until she looms above the shooting victim, now crumpled on the ground. She looks down, peering at the wounded man’s face.

And laughs.

The sound is … delighted.

“I thought that could be my aunt,” the girl hollers, to no one in particular. Then she skips away, still laughing—a ghost of what Hiner’s kids could be, melting back into a milky haze of Southwest Philadelphia streetlights.

A man opens the front door of a nearby house. He shouts to the girl Hiner is dropping off, calls her inside. And off she runs, leaving the Work To Ride program behind for the night, leaving for home.