It’s a Tuesday morning at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School. Nestled in a quaint corner of the Prospect Park South neighborhood, the large brick building stands amidst brownstone-laden streets and percolates with students between kindergarten to 12th grade. Another ho-hum day of classes. In a classroom on the first floor—second left off the main hallway, just past the drinking fountains carved into the wall—Jason Brooks checks his watch, confirms with a glance at the standard schoolroom clock, and jumps out from behind his desk to grab a coffee across the street.
“Eight minutes until first bell. Gotta hustle,” Jason says while hastily exiting the classroom.
He gracefully sidesteps piles of kids planted against the walls. Their legs sprawl across the hallway floor creating the perfect perch for their laptops, phones, books or last minute study sessions. Jason fist-bumps two freshmen boys sluggishly making their way to class. Both have hoods draped over scraggly hair and half-open backpacks slung from one shoulder. Both make every effort to let people know they woke up very recently and have no intention of hiding how disappointed they are that school is still a thing.
After he exits the school’s front door, Jason looks back through the glass doors at the flooded school hallways and makes a very simple statement.
“I have to open a school for these boys. From ages 13-17, kids of color are totally mistreated in our society.”
As he waits on the sidewalk for traffic to stop, his eyes squint a bit. His face gets serious and he contemplates what it means to be a young black kid in America’s education system. Jason’s expensive dress shoes rest under tailored dark slacks holding the tuck of a pressed button-down shirt. All of that is accented by a perfectly knotted dark blue tie. He’s put together. In good shape.
Successful. Driven. And by the current cultural standards, it appears he has beaten all odds.
He would disagree. Strongly.
Jason refuses to fall into a cliché or statistic. His life is not subject to profiling. It’s totally unique. Similarly, he looks at the kids he sees everyday as unique. To Jason, subjecting kids to typecasting at this stage in their lives can forever negatively impact them.
“Hurry up!” Jason jokes with a student in line as he waltzes into the small coffee shop.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Brooks, I’ll make it,” the student says back with a sheepish smile while grabbing the brown bag holding her bagel.
“Did you read that chapter?” he quizzes back.
“Yup,” she replies as she heads out of the coffee shop. “See you later, Mr. Brooks…”
He gives a simple head nod and looks back up at the menu on the wall.
Students see Jason as the respected-but-approachable teacher. Every school has at least one, hopefully several, of these types. He attempts to be an example of how to interact with the students in a healthy way.
While Jason waits in line, he can’t stop talking about a school for the boys falling within that underserved demographic. A book about education within inner cities is messing him up, he says. Approaching this group of kids could change the culture, he explains. They are put into a program during an ever-changing time in their lives and if they don’t fit that mold, they are almost immediately tabbed as potential criminals by society. He shakes his head. He pauses for a second as he stirs in the sugar to his coffee, and then he walks out of the shop.
Jason hustles back to the school’s front door. The bell is one minute away from ringing. A few more fist bumps and teacherly heckles through the hallways gets him back into the classroom just in time. He doesn’t say a word to the group of Spanish 1 students already at their desks. He just points to a screen projecting common Spanish phrases. He presses play on his phone connected to the speakers, and a smoothed-out hip-hop beat fills the room. The kids react by rapping the phrases in synchronized harmony. Even though sleepiness plagues the mumbly melodies, each student raps the phrases in unison.
Mr. Brooks’ 8:00 am class is underway.
There is a secret to all of these hopes and dreams. A disclaimer must be stated before entering into Jason’s psyche about education. There is a reason for the intense passion and his tireless pursuit to see kids thrive.
The backdrop remains his unwavering faith in Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, Jason would have a completely different perspective on his students...and his own life.
8:05 AM: The class finishes rapping the phrases. They wake up, slightly. Jason passes out a worksheet and asks each student to get up and find a partner. Some kids don’t move, like at all. They barely even look up at the piece of paper. Jason stares them down for approximately six seconds before peppering them with commands. Get up. Move it. Let’s go, let’s go! Don’t even try it, man. Jason’s words resonate with this diverse but predominantly black, latino and male group of students. It strikes a chord with them. But it’s easy to strike that chord: he was one of these kids.
Jason grew up in Watts, a city notoriously swamped with violent gang activity about 20 minutes south of Los Angeles, California. He witnessed shootings. He frequently saw gangs sporting matching colors to represent certain factions. He knew the formula for why so many shootings happened at one spot in the city, all the time. And because his entire childhood was spent in that reality, he knew nothing different.
“There [are] a lot of great, solid, hard-working people in Watts, and a critical mass of knuckleheads,” Jason says. “That group made it hard for everybody to live.”
Jason’s parents decided to move to Watts to be in ministry and serve the community when he was just a baby. They were partnered with a local church, so they set down roots to invest their time and effort into the surrounding neighborhood. Considering the circumstances, they homeschooled Jason and his five younger siblings through elementary and middle school. While his dad headed out for work, his mom popped open the workbooks and told Jason to get busy.
“My mom is amazing,” Jason says. “She homeschooled us all until we were ready to go to high school.”
“We lived in South Central L.A. during the time when the Crips and Bloods were at the height of their fighting, and we didn’t want Jason around that,” Jason’s mom, Renee, remembers. “We didn’t want him to be sucked in or drawn in. Or be a victim of an incident, where he might be caught in a crossfire or something like that.”
Homeschooling served many purposes, all important to Jason’s consistent upbringing. But it didn’t completely block out the brutality surrounding them.
One night, twelve-year-old Jason was hanging out in his living room. It was the end of a home church service. As the church folks trickled out with smiles and passed around hugs, Jason heard the infamous sounds of the block.
A loud pop followed by a dreadful scream. Commotion ensued as people funneled out to help. Jason snuck out to the porch to catch the scene. It was instantly seared into his brain. One of his neighbors was being carried out to a car parked on the street. She had been shot in the chest and while blood drenched her clothes, Jason remembers seeing her chest bones exposed and her breast saddled to the side.
In that moment, his reality of the neighborhood and the church upbringing in his house clashed. That was the first girl he saw naked and even though he knew it was wrong to look, the overwhelming brutality of the moment kept his eyes locked as they rushed her to the hospital. Jason’s mom grabbed him and shoved him into the house.
“There was just a lot of violence,” Jason remembers. “Where I grew up, it was just normal. I can’t tell you how many guys I have seen get shot. You can just feel it coming, you know. You can feel that tension building.”
While sharing this story, Jason pauses and contemplates. It’s no different than the tension his students feel in their Brooklyn neighborhoods. Different cities, same conflict.
8:20 AM: The class starts to collectively finish up the worksheets. It is easy to tell when the students are done because the volume knob goes from mild noise up to full blast. Once again, Jason addresses those avoiding all participation. He calls on the students quickly. He says the name, the question number, and asks in a Spanish accent, “Dimé, dimé. Rapidamente.” He moves from one question to the other, creating a momentum that captures the room. They start answering the questions. Friendly giggles start flying as awkward Spanish accents mumble out responses.
Jason relishes these moments. He’s a raging education junkie.
From 2012 to 2013, Jason spent countless hours shuffling between study groups and library nooks around Harvard University’s storied campus. In the midst of a one-year masters program, Jason starting seeing his path through education. The clarity happened as he engaged his Ivy League peers in conversations regarding progressive education. They talked about education opportunities in other countries. Education technology often came up. And research projects seemed at the top of people’s wish lists. Not Jason’s.
“You would go to any dinner [or] any bar and there were super bright people doing super cool stuff,” Jason says. “That is what made it a special place. Because everybody is smart. So you didn’t get credit for being smart anymore. So who are you after being smart? Because that doesn’t matter anymore.”
He knew he needed to be in the trenches. To be there for those mistreated demographics.
8:35 AM: The class is lively now. Jason rides this energy. Every class minute is planned and the cylinders are currently thumping. He asks them to move again and find new partners. Spare seats are hard to come by as kids dart for preferred partners. A list of questions are projected on the screen, and the small groups are given a certain amount of time to work together.
Jason sees these interactions as highly important. His own journey forced him to maneuver between many different types of people. He needed the jostling between cultures as he grew up. It helped him develop his perspective on faith.
A large park sits on the main drag in Watts. Jason describes it as the main intersection among everybody in the community. He would know. He spent countless evenings lacing up his kicks and balling with other kids in the neighborhood.
neighborhood. He credits this park for the blossoming of his athletic feats. It was his natural athleticism that opened him up to countless unique interactions at that park with people in the neighborhood.
“There was a weird nuanced calculus of growing up in that environment, being good at sports and being smart, I kind of got a pass from both sides,” Jason remembers. “Gang members on both sides would be like, 'If he gets out and makes it, maybe he’ll remember us.' I did not get as much heat as the average guy.”
As the community’s rate of violence climbed, Jason’s parents made the decision to send him to a boarding school just 50 miles east. Jason quickly realized some things were different in boarding school than in Watts. The all-boys institution operated like a softer version of boot camp for the upper-middle-class of suburban California.
“It was hard because the gulf was wider,” Jason says. “There was a divide because I was already getting interested in different things. And even speaking differently.”
He started playing lacrosse and seamlessly immersed into the culture of upper-class white kids. But his parents picked him up on the weekends and brought him back to Watts. Back and forth each weekend. A shift occurred on these trips. Constantly maneuvering between two cultures helped to sculpt his perspective on class, race, and education. But it also opened up questions about why the inequality that clearly marked the two people groups existed.
Jason sees that as a blessing. Looking back, he reflects on the importance of that experience. He read about Jesus constantly trying to weave through different cultures as a means for connecting everyone to God. And in the midst of that ministry, Jesus imparted a mandate to do the same. Sliding from Watts to boarding school enabled Jason to view the Gospel in a profound way. With the perspective of a reconciliatory Jesus.
Without that perspective, Jason’s class of high school freshmen, made up of every race and demographic possible, wouldn’t be moving toward that moment when every single kid in the room is smiling. But the class is, and Jason is now smiling back.
8:50 AM: The kids now have to act out their answers in front of the class. In groups of two, they slowly saunter up to the front of the class. Jason’s grin just gets bigger and bigger.
He smiles wider because there is something deep inside of Jason that loves the moment of getting in front of people and reading a written piece.
Jason himself loves writing about what God puts on his heart. Boxes of thin 50-page notebooks sit on his closet floor. Each notebook scrawled with Jason’s conversation between him and his faith. Between him and Jesus. Between him and God. The lines bleed poetic flow, smashed by raw emotion, brimming with intellect, and layered with lyrical lines that heap praises unto the Father.
On most Sundays, Jason shuffled up to the front of the auditorium housing the congregation from Trinity Grace Church’s Crown Heights location. As the end of the church service neared, Jason slid behind a microphone, and then said, “Congregation, please receive your benediction.” He lifted up his notebook still in progress and read from it. The purpose of the benediction is to bless the congregation before heading back into the world. Jason approached this moment with an intense amount of care.
There’s a deep connection between his words and his faith. His notebooks reveal a man looking to only one source for inspiration. He needs that inspiration to pray for the people around him.
inspiration to pray for the people around him.
Jason’s wife, Christa, explains it like this: “The journey of watching his heart shift and transform has been one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. Once he knows what God is telling him to do, he allows the Holy Spirit to work on his heart. And that is one of the most attractive, encouraging, beautiful things about him.”
9:00 AM: The classroom is downright lively at this point. Jason splits them up, still riding the momentum. Boys versus girls. One group on each side looks antsy to play the closing game. A memorization game ensues with mayhem quickly following. At this point, as the kids high-five each other and (mainly the boys) perform flying chest bumps after earning a point for their team, Jason openly laughs. He loves these moments. Seeing joy on the faces of his kids is important to him.
He knows how monumental that joy can be in life. But he also knows how quickly it can dissipate.
After finishing his undergrad at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Jason moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee for his first teaching gig. In short, this time was an extension of his college days. Heavy drinking occurred on Friday nights and slurred into Sunday mornings.
“When I got to college, [I realized] I can drink, smoke, do whatever I want with girls, and I am a college athlete so I don’t have to work hard,” Jason explains. “The four years of college and the two years after were really prodigal for me.”
It literally spun out of control.
At 25 years old, Jason coasted between pretending to pursue a Christian faith and mimicking his college nights. On one of those weekend nights, a large group of his friends dove into a heavy night of drinking topped off with a little cocaine to supplement the vibe.
large group of his friends dove into a heavy night of drinking topped off with a little cocaine to supplement the vibe. In the wee hours of that morning, Jason began to sober up and started gathering himself to head home. One of his buddies needed a ride, and they stumbled out to the car. As he turned the ignition of his brand new BMW, the friend clicked his seatbelt and thanked him for the ride. Jason peered over and daringly told him, “We are going to see how fast this car can go.” The friend didn’t protest, knowing Jason wasn’t going to change his mind.
The countryside highway opened up and Jason punched it. The odometer read 150mph. He distinctly remembers seeing that number a split second before the wheels stopped grabbing the road. The split second before adrenaline surged through his chest. The split second before his hands clamped the wheel. The split second before his eyes closed to block out the scene of his car spinning out of control. The car had hit some gravel and all four tires lost traction.
“There was a bend and the car went out of control and it accelerated [toward] the median,” Jason remembers. “It had to have been an angel, or God, or whatever. [Because] we had lost control and we just stopped.”
Neither Jason nor his friend spoke. They didn’t look at each other. They just looked at the empty two-lane highway, in complete shock. Not a car in sight. The car landed just a couple of feet from a concrete barrier as dust drizzled and settled around them. Jason’s foot eased off the brake and began driving away. Still, neither spoke.
The next morning, Jason knew he was spared. He couldn’t shake the thought that his life was given a glaring second chance. Rock bottom stared a few feet from a concrete barrier. Why was he spared?
This continued throughout the week. He tried to process it but couldn’t stomach what his actions might have caused. He eventually shuffled into the school counselor’s office to talk about it. The counselor, a Christian, gave it to him straight.
“He was really gentle and gracious. And I think that was the difference,” Jason remembers. “He was just kind of like, ‘I love you dude and there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. I was like, ‘Whoa, tell me more about this Jesus. This is not a version of Jesus that I have heard before.’”
Jason took that epiphany and let it sink in. He knew he didn’t have all of the answers. But he could start by going back to church and being intentional with the content. That Sunday, he walked in, sat down, and it hit him. He wasn’t spared, per se. He was covered by God’s grace. The prayers that his parents prayed over him for years and years were not singularly for his time in Watts. The prayers held an eternal perspective covering Jason all the way through. Jason didn’t miss another Sunday, and it became more and more apparent that the grace associated with Jesus’s love for him kept him alive that night. And because of that, Jason knew he needed to turn all of his attention to love Him back.
9:20 AM: The class is over. The frenzy from the game piles out into the hallway, and Jason shoos the lingering kids out. He shuffles some papers together, unplugs all of the projector and audio gear. A deep breath builds and releases from behind his button-down. He checks his watch, confirms it with the clock on the wall, and knows he gave it his all, only to do it again. Over and over. Day after day. A sincere smile spreads over his face. He loves this stuff. It has been firmly ironed on his heart. He knows this is where he is supposed to be. In the classroom, being a beacon for truth.
In the last year, Jason has discovered that being a beacon for truth is hardly limited to the classroom. He has been challenged to hold onto the truth when every circumstance says otherwise.
During the summer following this class, Jason moved to California. He made the leap to the other coast to get married. An open and sincere sacrifice for the girl of his dreams.
In 2014, Christa felt ill. She had been living and working as a missionary in Haiti over the past few years, and something wacky started happening in her body. Always feeling wildly drowsy, dizzy, nauseous, and feverish, Christa had to return home to Los Angeles to live with her parents. Over the next several months, a bedridden Christa waited on a diagnosis. Eventually, doctors diagnosed Christa with having Q Fever, an extremely rare disease that can be transferred through airborne bacteria. While she most likely caught it in Haiti, symptoms can lay dormant for years without any detection before surfacing. The hormones that controlled Christa's adrenal glands were not working properly, leaving her dismally weak and in bed for days without any warning. And leaving Jason feeling helpless on the other side of the country, unable to physically help his future wife.
“I’ve used this analogy for two years and it is still the same,” Jason explains. “It feels like you’re in a car crash. I don’t really mind being in the crash, [but] I just want to know when it will end.”
As a result, every ounce of Jason and Christa’s dating relationship revolved around praying for her health and body to be fully restored. In November of 2015, Jason spent the majority of the month with Christa and her family and witnessed the nature of her debilitating disease. Of course, it didn’t deter Jason one bit. Despite a deep connection to his community and work in Brooklyn, the doors for a move to L.A. opened up.
the doors for a move to L.A. opened up.
“He got to see kind of the worst of it while he was out [here], but he still stayed. And [he] still chose me, and that really spoke volumes,” Christa explains. “It’s the most I have ever felt the love of Jesus on earth. Jesus loves me unconditionally [even] when I can’t give anything back to Him. And Jason was able to look past the fact that I couldn’t give him anything in that season, but he still clung to hope that God was gonna heal me. So we just kept pushing through and trusting God for that. And I am feeling better even though things aren’t 100%, but He has answered so many prayers so far.”
A few months before getting married in the summer of 2016, Jason accepted the position of Dean of Students at a highly regarded school in central L.A. Soon, 8:00 am classes will start again. Jason will learn the names of a new collection of eager (and not so eager) students. He’ll give them all he’s got. Push them. Encourage them. Guide them. But this time, it will be a little different. He has a little more perspective on his side.
Jason has seen God’s faithfulness in tough times. The countless hours of praying for Christa has reframed his theology. Pray first, and then pray some more, and then try to get a bunch of people to keep praying with you. It’s the best way to understand God’s heart for something. It’s been the best way for him to understand God’s heart for Christa. And it will definitely be the best way for Jason to understand God’s heart for his next 8:00 am class.
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