One of the great rewards of teaching and running a school is the satisfaction of working with people rather than things. To visit with alumni one remembers with enormous fondness is, therefore, a real joy.
This month, I managed to visit the atelier/art gallery of a very special young man who attended York Prep. James De La Vega was a full scholarship student at York, coming to us in his eighth grade and graduating as class valedictorian in 1990. In his short autobiography, he remembers coming with a distinct Hispanic accent into a group of peers who “spoke very good English.” From us he went to Cornell University where he graduated with a degree in fine arts.
James’ valedictory speech was one I have never forgotten. He spoke of passing the local drug dealer every day while in his York Prep uniform (we had a uniform in those days). The drug dealer would look at James without understanding why he should be so dedicated to academics when he could make instant money by dealing, and James looked at the drug dealer with the same lack of understanding as to why someone, who was like him in many ways, was dealing in death and potentially leading what probably would become a short life.
The title of James’ mini biography is “Become your Dream,” which is an apt description of James’ journey. He taught at public school for a few years before returning to York as an art teacher. While at lunch on Columbus Avenue, he recognized the well known artist Leroy Neiman, and they started talking. Neiman looked at James’ sketches and became (and has remained) an artistic mentor. He helped James appreciate the business side of becoming an artist, and James left York Prep to become a full time creator.
James received high praise from the New York Times chief art critic who described him as a “jewel” of the New York art community. Always interested in encouraging young people, James began to write inspirational quotes on the sidewalks of New York and painted murals of famous Puerto Rican and Mexican heroes on the walls of his neighborhood. This effort to encourage the youth of the Hispanic community to reach for success created some controversy. Trying to improve your society is not, as James learned, without its frustrations.
Jayme and I have always treasured our friendship with James. He named his first daughter Jayme, and he has continued to come to school to talk to our students and inspire them to really think about themselves and their dreams. “Let me talk to the difficult students” has been his consistent mantra, because “I can tell them of my life in Spanish Harlem coming from a Puerto Rican background.”
Recently, Jayme and I had the pleasure of visiting James and his mother at his gallery in St Marks Place. His gallery is delightful and very personal. He has pictures of his mother as every possible character of our culture, from the Wicked Witch to Borat. His mother has always supported him (you have to be pretty supportive when your son draws you as Borat or the Wicked Witch) and helps him with selling his art when she can.
It is still not easy for a young artist in New York, but James seems to be making a success of it. Classically trained in painting though he is, his own style is unlike anyone else’s. He has, indeed, followed his dream. He is a fine young man who has always worked to help young people, and we are proud to count him among our alumni.
Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.