The Chemistry of Squash

What a racket—giving urban kids a shot a premier prep schools

"When you bring squash and academics together, something happens," he adds. "There's a certain chemistry between those two things."

There's also a keen interest on the part of admissions offices at boarding schools to build strong squash teams (and attracting minority students helps, too). In 2004, three CitySquash eighth-graders applied to boarding schools. All were accepted. The next year, Wyant hired Knowlton, an alumna of Amherst College, to become CitySquash's first director of placement (she also worked as an assistant director of academics). Her first year, Knowlton was charged with reaching out to boarding schools with squash programs, and shepherding through the boarding-school admissions process CitySquash eighth-grade team members who Wyant believed were qualified. She helped them assemble a list of prospective schools, visited schools with them, prepared them for and drove them to campus interviews, helped them brainstorm application essays, and aided parents, especially those who spoke only Spanish, in filling out financial-aid forms. Knowlton also recalls inserting lined paper under boarding-school applications, which were unlined and had to be handwritten, and shining a flashlight on the paper so that team members could write as neatly as they would on lined papers. "My job," Knowlton says, laughing, "was to be the suburban mother these kids never had."

All five students were accepted and enrolled at boarding schools. Seven more students applied the following year. Since 2005, CitySquash has placed 15 team members in schools including St. Paul's, Loomis Chaffee, St. George's, Williston Northampton, Salisbury, Canterbury, the Hill, St. Pius V, Westover, Hackley, Trinity-Pawling, Mercersburg, and Avon Old Farms. These students' combined promised financial aid totals more than $1.7 million, more than three times CitySquash's 2006-2007 operating budget.

Chris Fernandez swings his way out of the Bronx.
photo: CitySquash
Chris Fernandez swings his way out of the Bronx.

Fernandez is one of CitySquash's 15 students who have gone on to enroll at a boarding school. He's a freshman at Canterbury School (in Canterbury's lingo, a "third-former"), a Catholic boarding and day school in New Milford, Connecticut. Fernandez is 5-foot-6 and muscular and has bushy black hair that grows just long enough to hint at the possibility of Manny Ramirez–style dreadlocks. He wears a faux diamond earring in his left ear, often furrows his brow, and has a deep, gravelly voice. In his dorm room, over a poster showing sketches of hip-hop stars, he has tacked two notes, one from his mother and one from Wyant, which reads, "You are the freakin' man!"

"Tim told me he accepted me to CitySquash because I have a great personality and I'm a good athlete," Fernandez says.

"He told me he thought he could change me," he says. "And he did."

Fernandez's first year in the program was the year of CitySquash's first three applicants going to private boarding schools. At that point, Fernandez didn't entertain any thoughts of doing the same. "I was not the brightest guy," he says. He changed his mind in seventh grade, after visiting Suffield Academy in Suffield, Connecticut, with his CitySquash friend, Freddy Hernandez, an eighth-grader who planned to apply there. Fernandez describes the campus as "peaceful."

Courtney Knowlton with some of the squash players she’s helped: (left to right) Chris Fernandez, Seetreeon Torres, and Alija Hogans
photo: CitySquash
"It looked like a place you could do a lot of work," he says.

Fernandez did not raise his grades his seventh-grade year, and Knowlton resisted the idea of him applying to boarding schools. He not only had low grades, but also, like many CitySquash team members who apply to boarding schools, he scored poorly on the Secondary Scholastic Aptitude Test (SSAT), the standardized test that most boarding schools require for admission. "They're schools, boarding schools, not squash camps!" Knowlton joked to Wyant. Squash was not a problem: Fernandez was ranked in the top 40 in the country in his age division by the fall of his eighth-grade year.

That year, whatever chemistry there is between squash and academics seemed to kick in for Fernandez. His grade average was at or above 80 percent every quarter that year. "After playing squash three years," Wyant says, "he started to enjoy learning more."

Fernandez was accepted at two of the four schools to which he applied. He chose to attend Canterbury in part because two other CitySquash students were already studying there: Jose Alvarez, who was a Canterbury fourth-former (sophomore), and Hernandez, who had started there in the fall.

Fernandez wears his blue Canterbury jacket in the style of the school's sharpest dressers, zipped up all the way so that it entirely conceals his dress-code-mandated tie and blazer. At lunch he sits at a table of sophomores he met through Hernandez.

He didn't flinch when, in the dining hall one night before finals week, a shaggy blond Canterbury senior touched his earring. "Take that out, it looks too ghetto," the boy said. But Fernandez laughed it off.

"I've always felt that CitySquash kids waltz into these campuses like they own them because they've been there so many times to play squash," says Knowlton. "They know all the kids because they've played against them in squash. They know all the parents because they've hosted them."

On winter afternoons at the Canterbury School, students and faculty congregate in the athletic center, which consists of basketball courts, a wrestling room, a concession stand serving healthy snacks, an athletic gift shop offering T-shirts and baby clothing from various teams, a hockey rink, and a Zamboni emblazoned with the blue Canterbury crest.

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