Last Saturday, as their parents pushed back dinner plates and settled into their chairs, 66 young men from across this city — nearly all of them African-American or Hispanic — stood shoulder to shoulder near the front of a Highland Park gymnasium at the end of their weekend retreat and recited — no, shouted — one of history's most epic poems.
"It matters not how strait the gate!" they began. "How charged with punishments the scroll!"
The poem is Henley's "Invictus," which helped fortify Nelson Mandela during his years in an apartheid South African prison. Many of these boys, too, live inside their own prison: of poverty, normalized trauma, city violence.
"I am the master of my fate!" they continued.
On Aug. 2, these 66 boys will shape their fate in historic ways, becoming the first to walk through the doors of Chattanooga Preparatory School, the newly established all-boys' charter school.
They're the inaugural class.
They're the ones we're watching: can an all-boys' charter school undo the dire effects of poverty?
"I am the captain of my soul!" they shouted.
Shouted as if their lives depended on it.
Trace the start of this Highland Park "Invictus" moment back to 2012, when Mason West, one of the finest teachers I've seen, was leading a student-group at The Howard School called "The Talented Tenth," named after W.E.B. DuBois's vision for African-American liberation through education.
Among many things, West arranged mentors for his students. One of his sharpest students, Derelle Roshell — a prodigiously brilliant young man nicknamed "Senator" — was matched with another brilliant and prodigious local entrepreneur.
Soon, Alling, who co-founded Access America Transport then the Lamp Post Group, began to realize: we need to open as many doors for young African-American men like Derelle. College. Careers. Leadership roles throughout the city.
It was a seed. Ted and his wife, Kelly, with her long background at Habitat for Humanity, began to wonder, "How can we help?"
Three years later, in 2015, the Allings sat down with Dr. Elaine Swafford, head of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the nationally known all-girls charter school in Highland Park.
They came with a question.
"What do we have to do to start, finish and sustain a high-performing school for boys?" they asked.
Swafford had heard the question before.
Others had asked. Many others.
But the Allings were different.
They kept asking.
"They are the only couple that came back," Swafford said.
The Allings and Swafford began to create a school. The Allings scoured the country — from New York to San Antonio to L.A. — for best practices at all-boys' charter schools.
They bought land and buildings. Assembled a board, administrators and faculty. (Swafford will serve as the school's CEO.) Knocked on doors, listened to families of local boys.
Put in millions of their own money to kickstart fundraising.
Built a new cafeteria. Gym. STEM lab and library. Selected a Sentinel — guardians of the community — as the mascot.
On Aug. 2, Chattanooga Preparatory School — starting with sixth grade, adding one grade every year — opens its doors.
They're asking 300 Chattanooga men — you, your neighbor, your boss — to come on opening day, dressed in coat and tie, to applaud as the boys arrive. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.)
Last weekend, the school held its opening lock-in retreat.
Water balloons, basketball, tug of war. Chess matches. (The boys lit up when Alling, who said one boy gave the weekend a 100 on a scale of 1-to-10, promised to take them to tournaments in Brooklyn.)
The boys met their male mentors. ("Senator" Rochelle was there, in town from college.)
The boys were divided into four different homerooms, each named after a university.
Student leaders, or head prepsters, were voted on.
Teachers and administrators, some running on 45 minutes or so of lock-in sleep, met with parents. (Teachers began delivering uniforms to front doors this week.)
Underneath all that, here's the bedrock:
"Eighty-three percent of our boys are one to four grade levels below average," Alling said.
He said this not out of despair.
But with sure and certain conviction that those numbers will move.
"We have a chance to have the most growth of any school in Tennessee," he said with a smile. "How front page is that?"
When this school opens, our city will see what happens when one of the most driven and devoted couples in this city — the Allings aren't a power couple, but a servant couple — combined with a Mount Rushmore of school leaders — Swafford — attempt to do what has not been done: a school that takes vulnerable and against-all-odds boys and transforms them all into men of power, promise and potential.
The masters of their fate.
The captains of their soul.
"2029. That's the year they graduate college," Chatoris Jones, dean of students, told the crowd. "We're naming this class the Class of 2029."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.